The Dirty Achievement Diaries, Vol. 4... The Harry Potter Edition

I’ve never thought too highly of live-action role-playing. Those guys that wore full-plate armor and chainmail on my college campus never quite sold me on the principle, and the weird dudes playing lawn quidditch don’t exactly inspire me to jump on my broom and fly to glory. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing the worst stuff around for achievements, it’s that sometimes crazy is necessary. So, being out of my mind, let’s give a classic Hogwarts spell a try… Accio Sanity!

...anything happen? No? So I’m still nucking futs? Oh well, it was worth a shot.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’ve spent the last week or so playing through a trio of Harry Potter licensed games. I figured with the last movie tearing up the box office, and with many of the Potter games having simple achievements, that I might find my own way to embrace Pottermania. And thus the fourth entry in my “Dirty Achievement Diaries” finds me locked away in the blackest depths of Hogwarts’ dungeons. If I could conjure one word to summarize the whole experience, it would have to be pain. We’re talking a full-on cruciatus curse to my soul. I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, mind you; I do like the Potter franchise. I read all the books when they came out, and I’ve seen the movies. But I don’t love the series, which means that (unlike Nintendo) I need more than just character licenses to give my seal of approval.

But when you stop and think about it, what would make an exciting Harry Potter game? I think this is a valid question, one that the developers should probably have taken time to consider. Why? Because for one reason or another, the first Harry Potter games on the Xbox 360 embraced the whole “go to school” aspect of the series, instead of the “use awesome spells and beat those Slytherin punks” concept. I do realize that the most recent titles (the Deathly Hallows entries) are basically Gears of War clones. But while those games are fine for what they are, they don’t have easy achievements, and they’re still overpriced for what they deliver; hence, they’re not on my list. So, instead, it’s time to enroll at Hogwarts:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Remember when I said that the developers of the Harry Potter games never really considered how to make them fun or exciting? Sure you do, it was just a couple sentences ago, but bear with me: apparently, for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “compelling gameplay” is delivered through a barrage of mundane tasks, fetch quests, bad mini-games, and a generous portion of glitches. Prior to playing this, I didn’t realize the Order was some kind of janitorial guild. However, I have since come to understand the joys of tidying up Hogwarts. And yes, because you asked, they are indeed legion.

Dumbledore's Army. They could stop the Dark Lord, if only they didn't have that paper to write.

Let’s back up a step. The game itself is painfully short: after some brief introductory events at Grimmauld Place and Hogwarts, roughly 80 percent of the remaining “story” involves the recruitment of Dumbledore’s Army (Harry’s makeshift defense against the dark arts club). There are 26 students that need to make it to club practice, and once they’re enlisted, the narrative catapults the player straight through to the endgame. And before you get excited, the “recruitment” process is not some intriguing mode where you persuade allies to your cause. Rather, it’s a matter of finding the DA members standing (like statues) in the hallway, and (literally) completing their homework so that they can go to club. This generally involves some sort of fetch quest, many of which hurt to even think about. Lee Jordan, for example, needs you to scour the castle to find four talking gargoyles, while the Patil sisters need you to come with them to divinations class. Believe me, there are no highlights to be found during this process.

As in any poorly conceived licensed title, there are ways to pad out the time spent. And where achievements are concerned, there is a whole insane asylum’s worth of padding to wade through. Roughly half the points in the game are earned by reaching a particular “discovery level.” To earn discovery points, you have to cast spells (generally lifting and/or repairing spells) on random items throughout the castle. In practice the, most of these points get earned by repairing broken statues, hanging wall paintings, mopping up the floors, and completing fetch quests for NPCs. The remainder of the discovery points can be earned by completing abysmal minigames, such as wizard’s chess (which is just chess) and gobstones (the latter of which might be the slowest, most arduous thing I’ve done during this project.) Much of my consternation comes from having to play the game on hard, which makes all the tasks, duels, and challenges almost comically difficult. For example, being terrible at chess I used a chess computer to play my games for me, but the CPU (on hard) literally caused my online game to crash.

This is Harry Potter in 40 years.

Speaking of glitches, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix also gave me my first massively broken achievement. Simply put, the 100g earned from beating the game on hard doesn’t unlock when you, you know, beat the game on hard. As a result, all the added frustration I received from playing on the highest difficulty was entirely wasted. To make matters worse, before playing the game I read that you could still get the achievement by turning off the autosave before starting a new game. Well I did that, which meant that I had to go through the whole thing without turning off my console. I literally pulled an all-nighter as Harry Potter: Hogwarts Janitor, only to be denied my 100g at the end. None of the workarounds listed online fixed my problem, so instead of replaying the whole thing “just in case,” I took my 900g straight up the leaky cauldron and moved on.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I wouldn’t call Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a good game; far from it, in fact. However, I can safely say that Harry’s sixth year on the Xbox 360 is a dramatic improvement over the previous term’s adventure. When taken in comparison, there is nothing that hasn’t been streamlined or just plain fixed. For example, the clunky “Marauder’s Map” interface was replaced by Nearly-Headless Nick acting as a kind of spectral GPS; the “repair everything in Hogwarts” tasks are gone, and the central staircase actually works (in the previous entry, waiting for staircases to move felt like waiting for a train to arrive). In addition, characters move more fluidly, spells work as intended (for the most part), and best of all, none of the achievements are glitched.

Get Used to it...

That said, the HBP is still not a quality title. Clocking in at around 3-4 hours (without sidequests,) there’s not much to the game. Gameplay itself is divided into four basic mechanics: run around Hogwarts, fight in wizard duels, mix potions, and complete quidditch events. Without exaggeration, that is all there is to this game. However, this wouldn’t be a problem if all these activities weren’t miserable, broken, or just plain boring. For instance, the bulk of the game involves potion-making, which is simply a matter of navigating items into a pot in a poorly presented 3d plane. Likewise, quidditch events, despite what you might think going in, are just races through colored hoops; no actual playing gets done by the player. Finally, duels become pointless because the levicorpus spell breaks the challenge. The rest of the game (for achievement hunters) becomes one massive collect-a-thon, as finding all 150 Hogwarts crests makes up the lion’s share of the gamerscore.

And this too...

In retrospect, all these flaws become magnified by the fact that HP:HPB doesn’t explain a damn thing to the player. One might think that a game so in love with its three basic game mechanics would want players to understand them, yet at no point does the game describe how to get higher scores in events. For example, the best potions scores are actually earned by slowly stirring, shaking, and adding ingredients until the appropriate change occurs. There’s a noise that indicates when this is done well, and this also adds more time than would be earned by rushing. Yet this is never explained; instead players are led to believe that only by acting fast can they win, which isn’t the case. Likewise, it’s not explained that players must fly through the exact center of the glowing rings to max out quidditch events. Also, the game never bothers to tell players how to activate items to get the most mini-crests (which are compiled into big crests, and therefore achievements). I figured these things out later on by repetition, but judging from most forums, I don’t think methods for effectively competing in these activities are common knowledge.

It’s always frustrating to see a game fail on such a basic level, especially when a few small changes could drastically improve the situation; but such is the case here. Hell, even the ability to play quidditch in some rudimentary form would have represented a welcome shift. I’d even take a re-skinned blitzball (from Final Fantasy X)…that’s how desperate I’m getting. So, in summary: three mini-games, a four-hour campaign, and frustrating collectibles. I can’t exactly say that it was my favorite 1000g ever. I’d encourage you to watch the quick look of the game (below), because that short video contains literally everything you’ll be doing in year six.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4

It was long overdue I suppose. Having read many Trueachievements and X360A forums, I know that Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO games all contain easy (if not quick) achievement points. And since Pottermania is in full effect right now, LEGO Harry Potter, years 1-4 proved a natural jumping-off point. There isn’t a whole lot to say about the LEGO franchises: once you have seen one game, you have seen them all. Yet there is an undeniable whimsy and charm to these titles. Though some may disagree, I find the no-dialogue, comic approach of the cutscenes totally endearing. And even though I love my M-rated titles, playing something designed for all ages just feels good every now and again. Moreover, I am truly impressed by how crisp both the graphics and frame rate hold up. I never saw the game drop below 60 frames-per-second in my 20-plus hours with it, and every texture – LEGO or otherwise– looks fantastic.

Full CompletionAll that said, I do not think I will be playing more LEGO titles in this achievement project. The games seem perfectly suited to short play sessions (because long stretches are exasperating), but at the same time, demand constant focus and attention. Why? Because LEGO Harry Potter – and I’d assume all other LEGO games – are collect-a-thons to end all collect-a-thons. I am relatively certain that Rare’s Banjo Kazooie never stooped to the level of random crap that Travelers’ Tales throws into the mix. For this title, there are 20 red bricks, 24 Hogwarts Crests (comprised of four pieces each), 50 students to save, 24 true wizard levels, 167 unlockable characters, and 200 (yes, 200) gold bricks to earn and find. These collectibles would be manageable if each were tracked by location; however, particularly where the gold bricks are concerned, there’s no way to know which ones you have or don’t.

In practical application, this means that you need to have a super-guide or checklist to work from, starting from the minute you begin the game. Meticulously working through a guide is NOT relaxing gameplay, not when there are over 400 things to check off. To make matters worse, I’ve read that many of the collectibles in LEGO Harry Potter are glitched, though I did not encounter any during my playthrough. In addition, there is no in-game map to work from, which makes navigating Hogwarts for collectibles way more of a headache than it already is. I suppose if I had played through the game over a solid month, it might not have been an issue. As it stands, the kid’s game required the most focused diligence of any title so far in this project.

Good luck...Bitch

Avada...um...Godiva?

Well, thus ends my brief wizarding career. It’s always a shame to see a franchise you like given such pitiful treatment. For most of these titles, the insistence on the mundane – whether that be mopping up stains on the floor, or fixing yet another potion – keeps them from being anything other than boring, licensed cash-ins. Playing these games felt like work in the purest sense of the term, which isn’t surprising given that most of the tasks you complete could be considered work by any objective standard.

Part of me would like to say that I’m done with this whole affair; however, there’s still some time before school starts, I still have a great friend at my local Gamestop, and yes, I still hate myself. I have a number of titles coming in, and as of this writing I can safely state that I have completed Avatar: The Burning Earth. And no, I don’t just mean achievements, I mean the whole thing. More on that to come…

So thanks again for reading, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments and feedback. I’ve got nothing but love for the whole GB community. If you haven’t been following along, you can check out my other entries here.

Until next week…

20 Comments

Sports Games? Ew, no way... wait, they have points? (the DAD v.3)

Hey Sports Fans...

I suppose it was inevitable. In my idiotic (dare I say quixotic?) Summer quest to complete as many easy achievement games as I can, I’ve needed to knock out as many titles as possible. And as many of you have suggested, some of the easiest gamerscore available comes from early Xbox 360 sports titles. You know, the ones from 2006-2008, before publishers and developers knew how to effectively apply the achievement system? Particularly where 2006 is concerned, several sports titles have less than ten achievements, and in many cases these can be earned by playing only a couple full games. To make matters even easier on my end, these titles have virtually no resale value, meaning that I was able to buy most of them for one or two dollars. So with about ten bucks and a few stops, I assembled a small stack of acronym-laden, white-labeled titles. Game on, right? Well, not so much…

The problem for me is that I hate modern sports games. I can think of nothing I’d rather do less than manage a draft sequence in Madden, or complete a career in Tiger Woods; and I’d sooner edit a dictionary than simulate the college coaching experience. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports, most of them anyway. I’ve got favorite teams in every major professional league, and having graduated from a football school (Virginia Tech), I love the NCAA. However, when it comes to video games, I want escapism. Maybe it’s just me, but vaporizing battleships as an overpowered space marine seems a little more interesting than adjusting the spin rotation on my third relief pitcher’s curveball. The larger issue for me (and many others, including the GB editorial team) is that modern sports games are almost all simulations. They are designed for the hardcore fans, the same demographic that obsessively watches its fantasy leagues and lives for statistics. For people like me, who just want to pick up a controller and go, there’s not much fun to be had. I used to love the sports titles that came out before things got complicated, games like Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, Madden 1994, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, and NBA Jam.

That said, where these games are concerned, I don’t feel right going in-depth on an editorial level. Instead, I’ll keep my comments focused on the achievement experience, which in many cases proved quite brief. It’s worth mentioning that 1) I played each title a minimum of six full games, and 2) I cheated like crazy to get almost all these titles’ points. That last point seems ethically questionable, but really, all of these games give the ability to adjust player stats, AI behaviors, and rule applications. Frankly, many of these achievements would be near impossible if you were to play the game “normally.” I’d wager that nobody would earn half of these 1000g sets if not for some manipulation. Anyways, on to the games:

NBA Live 2006

I started the sports marathon with EA’s NBA Live 06. There were no big surprises here: hip-hop anthems pumping, bright lights, and a confusing set of menus. Looking at the achievement guide, there were only 12 achievements: 4 from beating the AI on various difficulties, one for creating a player, one online, and six season-related achievements. The first set proved frustrating, as they require players to beat the AI on each difficulty setting, with none of the achievements stacking. So, not really knowing how these games worked, I tried again, and again, and again to beat the computer on “Superstar” level. I never came close, and short of chucking my controller through my monitor, I did some research. Not being familiar with modern sports games, I didn’t know I could assemble a super team and completely gimp the computer’s stats. Once that was taken care of, I had no problem polishing off the rest.

It was odd, however, that despite assembling an all-star team of the best players in the game, it took four season simulations before I won the NBA championship. Then again, with the Miami Heat’s 2010-2011 performance, I could see where a “superteam” might not be guaranteed the victory. Still, after about 5 hours (including my clueless phase) I had the full 960g. Yes, you heard that right: 960g, not 1000g. Because EA loves to shut down servers, getting any online achievement that dates before 2009 has become impossible. Even though I was only robbed of about 40 points in a game I paid $0.99 for, I still felt cheated. While better writers have commented on EA’s online policies, it’s nothing short of infuriating that EA bypasses Microsoft’s system so that it can track gamers individually, and then shuts them out of games that are no longer profitable. While it’s true that many fans do buy the same game year after year, it should be optional. What if I loved the rosters from 2006 (as I did in Madden ‘06)? If so, I’m out of luck. One final note about NBA Live ‘06: it has the creepiest sweat physics I have ever seen. Players have rivulets of fluid coming off them that makes them look like the monsters from the Siren series. Ew…grody…

This is kind of what your average point guard looks like after 10 minutes in NBA Live '06... Well, maybe a little taller.

NBA 2K6

I know I'm not pretty, but it's not like you have to look at me for much longer.

Well, after getting what I could from EA’s franchise, up next was its competitor: NBA 2K6. I had always heard that 2K had been creating the better basketball experience, and even knowing next to nothing, I can see how that has remained the case. While EA creates flashier menus and provides an obscene amount of licensed music, 2K’s gameplay is far more streamlined and accessible. More to the point, shooting, stealing, and physics react like one would expect. NBA Live, on the other hand, uses an unintuitive system where different button presses are used for different types of shots. Editorial opinions aside, NBA 2K6 might have the easiest achievements I have found since I started this dumb project. In only one game, I earned all five (yes, only five) achievements. I wasn’t even going for all of them, but the game must have figured that I was going to get them anyways, because it awarded me the one for earning 140 points in a game after I’d scored roughly 30. Still, I’m not one to complain. Long story short: adjust AI sliders, play as an all-star squad, set quarters to 8 minutes, and earn 1000g. My total time was less than an hour.

Major League Baseball 2K6

I can't even think of an interesting caption.. (sigh)

Let’s shift over to America’s Pastime (for those of you paying attention, I do mean baseball). I have heard that 2K’s baseball franchise is a decent experience, but I wouldn’t know. I am admittedly not the biggest baseball fan. Hell, without a solid infusion of beer and hot dogs, I can’t stand to sit through nine innings. Part of that might be due to the fact that I’m a Chicago White Sox fan. Since the Sox tend to do almost nothing from year to year, there’s not much point in watching, assuming that I can even see the games here in Virginia. More to the point, the thought of simulation baseball makes my head hurt. (Seriously, I’m not being hyperbolic there.) Even in the most basic of modern baseball sims, there exists a multitude of variables, settings, button presses, and complications, which (from where I’m concerned) serve to add only frustration onto a relatively simple sporting event. However, I do love arcade baseball – if you can find a copy of Ken Griffey for the SNES, then play that jam. It’s still the one game that unites my family during the holidays... so good.

Anyhow, back to MLB 2K6. Even though the game has only five achievements, they are earned by completing feats that all but demand cheating and/or manipulation. Let’s face it, in the course of events, how likely is it for a pitcher to ever earn 15 strikeouts in one game, or for one batter to homer three times in the same nine innings? Outside of a serious fluke, it’s just not going to happen. So, in order to increase my odds, I had to edit the rosters. And by “edit the roster” I mean edit every player on each team’s roster. This took over an hour. Then, once I made my “super team” and my “punching bag team,” I got to work. Even with the ridiculous adjustment in skill, I barely managed to get the major achievements. It was by sheer luck I got the homerun/runs scored titles, and even with the “run up walls” cheat active, robbing an opponent’s homerun proved irritating enough to make my blood pressure soar. Let’s just say that MLB 2K6 did nothing to renew my faith in baseball sims. The grand total there: 4 games, 6 hours, and a whole lot of player editing... Never. Again. Ever.

Madden '06

This is football...

If I had to choose only one sport to love, it would have to be (American) football. Of all the major sports, it’s the one I know the most about, and it’s the one that I have the most experience playing in video game form. Since I had owned Madden ’02 for the GameCube, it was also the sport I had the most recent experience with. Because old football games are stupid cheap, I picked up both Madden ’06 and Madden ’08, along with NCAA Football 2007. Let’s begin with Madden 2006.

There’s not much to say where Madden 2006 is concerned. It’s a Madden game. I hate to be so reductive, but if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. I understand that there are roster changes, and slight mode variations, but I can’t say that the structure of how a football game is played has shifted significantly since the early ‘90s. But being an early Xbox360 titles, Madden ’06 joins MLB 2K6, NBA 2K6, and NBA Live ’06, in having very few achievements; 11 to be precise. The majority of these are for completing games, simulating seasons, and earning a bunch of yards. Ten of these achievements can be earned by playing three games (an offline game, a franchise game, and a super bowl). Since difficulty doesn’t affect achievements, there’s no need to even cheese the sliders on this one.

Unfortunately, the last achievement for the game requires more time than all the rest put together; much more. To earn the “Complete 30 Years of Franchise Mode” achievement – worth an astonishing 400g – you have to…you guessed it… complete thirty years of franchise seasons. For almost any sane person, this requires just simulating season after season of NFL play. If you are diligent about it, it can be completed in roughly 3.5 hours. Although I am talking about literally hitting one button for nearly four hours, it wasn’t so bad. I have a dual monitor setup which allowed me to watch TV while I did this. For 400g, I have done much worse. Hell, for 40g, I have done much worse.

Madden '08

...This is also football. Any questions?

Madden 2008 shows a clear evolution in gameplay over its 2006 predecessor. But wait, before you call me a hypocrite: it’s still a Madden football game, but the graphics, menus, and tech improved quite a bit in two years, as could be expected. Even with the noticeable improvements, I have to say I preferred the 2006 version, if only because I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and the ‘06 squad was a Super Bowl team (and I loved the memories.) Still, if nothing else, Madden ’08 improved its achievement requirements to include actual tasks beyond “hey, just play this game and have some points.” And with challenges such as “complete 20 consecutive passes to one player” and “intercept five passes in one game” one would think that getting the 1000g would represent a huge time sink, right? Well, not quite. As it turns out, players can unlock achievements just by simming through each game. If the required event occurs, the achievement unlocks, even though the player didn’t do anything. You can earn at least half the total score by just “supersimming” the Patriots against the Texans a couple times. For the rest of the points, I took control myself, turned off the rules, and played a few games against weak teams. After about five games I had earned all the points. Perhaps the most frustrating achievement was the “earn 200 yards in kick returns with one player,” because it proved quite difficult to make a bad team kick off a lot in one game. Still, after about five hours, the job was done.

NCAA Football 2007

I hope you brought a book. We're going to be here awhile...

I believe I mentioned it above, but I do love me some college football. Even so, I’d be hard-pressed to explain how the NCAA franchise varies wildly from the Madden series. From a gameplay perspective, there’s not much distinction. It is still simulation football. Well, now that I think about it, instead of “asking Madden” you can “ask Lee Corso.” And then there’s the ESPN brand to consider. Also, I suppose it would be a little silly to call a game “Madden NCAA 2007,” and I don’t think the NCAA would approve, so there’s that too. The major difference, as far as I can tell, is that the franchise mode digs much more heavily into college recruiting and back-office tasks than Madden does. Also, there are many more teams and play styles to consider.

All that said, earning achievements in NCAA Football takes the same amount of effort (or lack thereof) as it does in Madden. Difficulty sliders are not available in the same manner as they are in Madden, but the rules and rosters can be adjusted. So to earn the bulk of the points, players need only edit the rosters of two teams (the player’s and the opponent’s). However, because there are dozens of stat metrics and 50+ players on each team, this takes an irritating amount of time. To make matters a little worse, some of the achievements just aren’t easy to manipulate: blocking a field goal attempt was one of the largest headaches I’ve had during this project. That one task alone probably took me two hours.

Now the hard part: remember when I talked about the boredom of simulating 30 seasons in Madden ’06? Yes? Good. Now NCAA football has a similar task, but it wants players to complete SIXTY years of its dynasty mode. To make matters more difficult, simulating each season takes substantially longer due to dozens of preseason tasks, more teams, and more options. Assuming that the player simulates everything, each season includes prompts to sim through the off-season, preseason, regular season, conference championship week, and bowl season. This just takes time, and even a few minutes becomes an eternity when multiplied by sixty. Moreover, barring extreme luck, you are likely to be fired as coach and have to find a new team on several occasions. All told, with constant management, this one achievement took a solid eight hours of button pressing. If that’s not mundane, then I don’t know what is.

...Self-esteem is for chumps

I think that last little bit should be enough to tell you that I completely hate myself at this point. But am I stopping? No, no I am not. I’m going to keep earning as much as I can in the weeks ahead. Although I’ll be moving and out of town quite a bit, I remain confident that I will keep up until I cry myself to sleep. Speaking of which: hiding in the fetal position under your desk is quite soothing, or so I’ve found.

Next week, I’ll be swinging into full Pottermania, playing a few of the many Harry Potter games that are out there. Spoiler alert: I’ve finished a couple, and now my soul hurts. Once again, thanks for reading along and sharing in my shame. You can read my previous entries if you haven’t ( D.A.D. Vol 1, D.A.D. Vol 2)

You guys are fantastic, thanks.

13 Comments

Points for Participation? Yes Please... (The D.A.D., Volume Two)

Since I started writing these entries, there have been more than a few kind Giant Bomb users who cautioned me about burning myself out with mediocre and bad games. Now that I’m three weeks into this psychotic, achievement-based orgy, I am beginning to see where all the warnings were coming from… but I’m nothing if not stubborn.

I can't quit you...

For those of you who have been following along, this marks the second “official” entry in what I have been calling the “Dirty Achievement Diaries.” By dirty, I mean that feeling that comes from earning rewards that just don’t mean anything – in this case, easy achievements. Until two weeks ago, I was determined to only ever play games that I wanted, and never play anything for the sake of something as meaningless as gamerscore. Some ten games later, whatever ethical opinions I had towards cheevos got washed away in the shame spiral. While I still find the cumulative gamerscore somewhat meaningless, I found that I’m becoming addicted to playing these games that I would otherwise ignore, or consign to the dust bin.

Even if the games themselves are of poor quality, the ability to easily “complete” them keeps me chomping at the bit for a new title. At first, when I was playing King Kong and Gun, I didn’t really think about it beyond the points. However, the more that I get into this project, the more I realize that easy achievements scratch my completionist itch in the best possible way. Like Vinny, and many others on this site, I have a tendency to want to complete every single game I play down to the last collectible. Sometimes it can be fun, but more often than not it can make me feel quite miserable, marring an otherwise fun title. So in a sense, I’m replacing one self-destructive tendency with a new one. Think about it this way: assuming I was a puppy… my knocking out all of a game’s achievements in only three hours is kind of like rubbing that one spot on my tummy that makes my back leg kick uncontrollably...it’s that good. (Oh, and if that isn’t a cry for help, then I don’t know what is)

For this week’s installment, I’ve only got three titles on the docket. I’ve completed more than this by now, but I want future posts (assuming my sanity holds) to be a little more thematic. Hey, I can dream, can’t I? Still, on to the games:

TMNT

A nice way to spend an afternoon versus...

Although I was born in the ‘80s, I did most of my growing up in the early ‘90s. And, like any kid from that era, I was addicted to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whether it was the movies, video games, or the TV show, if it was green and ninja-related then I had to have it. As kids, my older brother and I built an enormous collection of stupid plastic toys, ranging from the original foursome and the most bizarre side-characters like Chromedome and Ray Fillet. So coming into TMNT, I was excited to experiences something Turtle-related for the first time in many years. Well, I also figured I could at least have fun. Hell, it would have to be better than the original NES game (which ruined a good year of my childhood…but that’s another story).

....A nice way to develop rage issues

The game itself follows the Turtles through the events of the recently released CG Animated film. Since I kind of liked the movie, I found that there was a lot to love in playing the simple platformer. And indeed, at its core TMNT is just a linear platformer, albeit one with terrible combat mechanics. Nevertheless, the majority of the game’s four hours are dedicated to jumping, double-jumping, and wall-running through various environments, so there’s not much to complain about. In this era of cover-based shooters and ubiquitous RPG mechanics, I think it is easy to overlook the joys of landing a few good jumps and moving smoothly in a straight, uninterrupted flow. Mario Galaxy and Prince of Persia captured this in their own right, and TMNT is at its best whenever combat doesn’t occur. Unfortunately, once the word “FIGHT!!” jumps onto the screen however, the game becomes a pitiful button masher. Combat is never challenging, despite being painfully sluggish. I know it’s a licensed movie tie-in, but seeing that they’ve had good fighting in TMNT games for decades, this is remarkably annoying.

TMNT is considered one of the go-to games for achievement hunters. It takes 3-4 hours to get everything, play everything, and move on; no cheap or cheating tactics required. So even though it’s a relatively mediocre licensed game, for a few bucks and a few hours, I’ve had much, much worse…

Lost: Via Domus

Who am I? Wait... I don't really care

…which brings me perfectly to Lost: Via Domus. Full disclosure: I’ve seen the entire run of the series, and I absolutely hated the last season and the flaccid ending. Luckily for me, Via Domus takes place during the first and third seasons of the show (you know, when we still thought all those WTF moments were leading towards something truly breathtaking). My opinions of the show aside, I was looking forward to exploring the island in Via Domus; there could even be some genuine entertainment there. Even if there wasn’t, the game only takes about 4 or 5 hours to complete, so it wouldn’t exactly become a grind, right? Right? Wrong…so very wrong…

On its surface, Via Domus shows a lot of promise that it can provide the rare “immersive” licensed experience. Playing as a random survivor of the crash that strands everyone on the island, you interact with the major characters from the show to try and solve a new mystery in conjunction with the overall plot. Environments from the show are rendered accurately, and the soundtrack hits the correct cues from the show. Hell, it’s even conceivable that there were other stories going on with different characters on the island, the show even hinted at that notion in several episodes. Via Domus contains the ingredients for greatness (well, mediocrity anyway).

Wanna go trap some moose, eh?

Unfortunately, that’s where the positive comments end. Somewhere along the line, the game’s developers must have thought to themselves: “people love being confused by Lost right? Let’s go with that!” So, playing as random guy (whose name now escapes me) with severe amnesia (how original), you must piece together your memory by completing “flashback sequences,” which consist of trying to take a predetermined camera shot during a memory sequence. Other gameplay elements include: completing mindless circuit puzzles, running through caves, avoiding the smoke monster, and um, talking. Yep, that’s pretty much it. The game doesn’t attempt to weave a cohesive story either, jumping at-will through the series without any type of explanation. The developers clearly assume that you have seen the show, because almost all the major moments of game consist of the “hey, I remember that place/conversation/episode” variety. To make matters worse, the voice acting downright abysmal, to the point it becomes unintentionally funny (when exactly did John Locke become a Canadian fur trapper?). Now that I think about it, Via Domus may have been the perfect Lost game, because by time it ended, I wasn’t entirely sure of what happened, who did what, or why I should even care. Four hours, 1000g, and some nice scotch to wash away my memories.

The Godfather: Part II

The Godfather Part II was another game that I had wanted to play when it came out. Ryan’s review of the title steered me off the purchase decision. I’m thankful for that, because this one wasn’t worth the full price of admission. The Godfather Part II is an open-world game in which you play as one of Don Michael Corleone’s underbosses, and build your empire during the timeline of the second film. The game promises players that it will make them feel like a Don, giving them control over gang activities, territories, business, buyouts, soldiers, etc. To that end, the pause screen becomes the “Don’s View” which allows players to see the status of all the properties and people in the three cities in which the game takes place. But for my part, this promise of control never really came to pass. There was no task that my soldiers – no matter how well-trained – were capable of completing with consistency. Bottom line: if I wanted something done right, I’d have to do it myself. Moreover, for being a game ostensibly about management and control, one would think that the Godfather II would unfold at a steady pace. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Because rival gangs constantly assault player-held business and rackets, the ongoing wars never stop. This leads to a situation in which the player can either act fast and take out the other families ASAP, or get mired in endless property takeovers and random street missions. The devs wanted players to slowly chip away at each crime family, taking out the made men in an ordered system very reminiscent of the original Mercenaries game. However, by the third major crime family, I found that the sooner I killed off the rival stronghold (bypassing assassinations) the less headaches I had. To compound matters, the Godfather II is simply a poor open- world game, containing tiny environments, bad shooting and driving mechanics, and plenty of good-old open-world jank.

This is your criminal empire. Survey your kingdom and then EVERYBODY PANIC!

The sad thing about it all is that the game has some great ideas. Supposing that the Don’s view worked like more of a management interface – and supposing that more could be done with it besides bombing, defending, or taking over businesses– The Godfather II could have been an actual mafia sim of sorts. It’s also worth mentioning that the game handles collectibles better than any other open-world title I’ve seen. First each type of collectible is listed in the menus, and then crossed off once the player has found/completed them. Second, and perhaps more important, the collectibles have a real relation to the story. They include safes (which have cash in them), banks you’ve robbed, officials you can bribe, and the weapons you’ve found. I have expressed in previous blog posts how collectibles can be done poorly (see: Alan Wake), so this was refreshing.

All that said, getting the full 1000g in the Godfather Part II was not terribly difficult, but it was quite time consuming, and quite a lot of focused work. The full score took me roughly 15 hours, and that’s with guides on either side of me. Still, for those of you interested in achievements, I would certainly recommend it now, given that it costs less than 20 bucks.

Down, down, down....

And that was last week for me, at least all I’m writing about now. After this week, I plan on trying to focus these articles more on a certain type of game. Up next week: the wide world of sports from 2006!! Wait…I hate sports games…oh man, this was not a good idea. God help me…

Once again, thanks for reading these long posts. The feedback I have been getting from both the community and the moderators has been fantastic, and really the only thing propelling me down this dark path. But as always, share your thoughts and comments, and remember: if you loved these games, then I’m stoked to hear it!

10 Comments

The Dirty Achievement Diaries, vol. 1

Last week, I wrote about making a bet to get easy achievements, and how I’m going to spend what’s left of my summer going through many of the Xbox 360 titles with the easiest 1000g. The easiest games aren’t always the best however, and suffice to say, It has been an exasperating week for video games. Although I’m beginning to see my gamerscore (an altogether pointless metric) continue to rise at record levels, I’m also beginning to see how playing through games can represent one hell of a chore. I’m only one week into my “dirty achievement project,” and I’m already developing a new respect for game journalists, who are required to complete the most banal and painful titles with professional integrity (in theory).

Because I’m just in it for the completion, the points, and the anecdotes, I don’t have to worry about marinating in the rancid stew of bad licensed games. Rather, I can finish, and hopefully forget the worst of it. That said, I’m not really playing the worst titles as of yet; far from it in fact. I’m trying to go through the lists to find games that I could enjoy, and all in all it’s been a mixed bag. Almost every game I’ve gone through this week has positive qualities, but they also have annoyances that leave me wondering whether gamepads are effective replacements for shot puts (guess what, they’re not half bad…).

In writing about these games, I figure the best thing is to adopt a “stream of consciousness” approach, and just share my impressions and thoughts. There’s not a lot of point in reviewing a game that came out in 2005 with deep sincerity (pro tip: you’re not going to want to buy Lost: Via Domus anytime soon). So this is what my whirlwind week looks like:

Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie

They want you to play from this view...no, seriously

I started this project by picking up Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie (and yes, that is the full title). As I wrote last week, I nabbed this one in order to win what I thought would be an easy bet. I can’t say that I had high expectations for PJKK: TOGOTM, seeing as it was a licensed title from 2005. However, I wasn’t prepared for the degree of well…awful gameplay that awaited me. To its credit, the game contains voice acting from the film’s main characters, but all the lines sound like they were pulled from a soundboard, and that they were recorded by a broken cell phone in an empty stadium. At its core, the game is a linear first-person shooter that follows the events of Jack and crew as they traipse around Skull Island. Despite being a shooter, the game lacks even a basic reticule for aiming. Progress consists of going through the same couple environments, killing the same couple of creatures over and over, and completing some of the worst puzzles I’ve seen in some time (take spear, light spear on fire, and burn the grass…rinse and repeat). It’s hard to know what the hell is happening most of the time. It’s summed up kind of like “hey, we have to get off this island, COME ON JACK!”

I can deal with a lame FPS; after all, I played through Haze for reasons I can’t quite recall. But PJKK: TOGOTM falls apart in catastrophic fashion during the scenes where you play as Kong. Despite what the developers might have you believe, Kong’s real enemies aren’t the dinosaurs, the humans, or even the weird bat-thingies. No, Kong’s true opponent is the camera, which gets thrown into weird oblique angles that defy basic gaming logic. It’s obvious that the game’s producers thought it looked cinematic or something, but have you ever tried controlling a front-facing cinematic? To compound the control frustrations, the friendly NPCs’ AI routines broke on numerous occasions, forcing me to replay levels from the beginning and hope for the best. I do realize that this game was released in 2005; but at this point, Halo and Call of Duty had already set standards for basic console FPS games. This game was just laughable. Still, 5 or so hours and 1000g to show for it - I’d have felt worse if not for the annoyances of getting through it all.

Gun (2005)

Tony Hawk's Pro Wrangler?

After returning King Kong, I picked up Neversoft’s 2005 Western Shooter Gun. Having never played this the first time around, I was genuinely looking forward to playing. Realizing that the game was basically an up-scaled port of the original Xbox game, I tempered my expectations. While Gun is quite poor when placed against Red Dead Redemption, it was a largely entertaining experience. The story was simple (evil Civil War commander obsessed with finding a buried treasure, plus murder, revenge, etc.) but effective in a “popcorn western” kind of way. As a basic action game, it’s successful; however, it fails miserably as an open world title, which it’s clearly trying to be. By 2005, Rockstar had set open-world standards in the GTA series; Neversoft should have taken at least some notes.

Even though the map is tiny, getting around becomes a major pain due to poor map functionality. Objectives aren’t clearly marked, and the game simply assumes you’ll figure out where places are. For example, side missions will tell you to go hunt in Blackfoot territory- as to where said territory is remains anyone’s guess. This becomes a problem in completing the many side quests out there (which you must do for the full 1000g). The graphical interface looks like it was ripped straight out of the Tony Hawk games, meaning the visuals and HUD just don't look right. Also, the main story is woefully short as well, but given that activities pad the experience out to around 15 hours or so, I didn’t complain. With that in mind, I didn’t feel bad about the easy 1000g, though I did feel bad about having to cheat to get all the “beat on x difficulty” achievements (because they don’t stack, you’d normally have to complete the game 4 times…hell…no)

Terminator Salvation

The next day I exchanged Gun for that perennial easy-achievement classic Terminator Salvation. Now I love the Terminator franchise, so I was stoked to get into this one. Unfortunately, the game (at least for me) was a textbook exercise in rage-inducing frustration. To be fair, in order get the full score I needed to complete it on hard (which, as a rule, I do for almost every game I play anyways) but I can’t imagine it being much less frustrating on lower difficulties. The summary is simple: Terminator Salvation is an incredibly short Gears-style cover-based shooter, which chronicles John Conner as he does, well, something in the future.

But let’s get back to that whole “annoyance factor” I mentioned earlier. Inconsistent weapons? Check. Incompetent friendly AI? Check. Enemies that cannot be killed by direct fire? Check. Interminably long and difficult rail-shooting sections? Check. Poor checkpointing? Double check. Broken enemy spawns? Check…Okay, you should be starting to get the point here: nothing about this game works the way you’d like. The way that enemies act as either bullet sponges or bullet shields becomes overbearing, to where the game becomes about memorizing the positions and patterns of the enemies in every room. There’s a lot of trial and error. Still, even with about 50 or so cheap deaths, getting the full 1000g took roughly six hours. I don’t feel bad about it, but I certainly can’t recommend it for any real fun. Moving on.

May I present the candidate running for "most annoying enemy ever?"

Saw

Screw creativity: it's size that matters, just ask my creepy puppet thing.

I’m a huge fan or horror games. During the PS2 era, I played literally every game in the survival horror genre, even the terrible ones like Haunting Ground and Obscure. Saw was one of those games I was looking forward to playing; I knew that the reviews were less than glowing, but let’s face it, horror games aren’t exactly ubiquitous these days. The first thing to mention about Saw is that the atmosphere is as grimy, gritty, and dilapidated as one would hope for a horror title. Yet the first scene foreshadows more or less the entire game: timed puzzles, timed puzzles, and more timed puzzles. The game is formulaic to a fault- there’s a major character who Jigsaw has trapped - follow the only available route - get locked in a room with certain death – escape (or don’t) – fight some dude – repeat. Some of the puzzles are well designed, but they’re all overused. Instead of bringing in new mechanics, the game just recycles them, and asks you to do more and do it faster. For example, the game uses circuit-breaker puzzles that begin with 3x3 grids, then 5x5 grids, then 7x7 grids, and then…two 7x7 grids!! Wow…terrifying.

While the imagery is dark, the game is simply not scary. Sure, I got startled a couple of times, but only when my character ran into a nearly-invisible tripwire trap, insta-killing me, and forcing me to replay multiple sections again. The checkpointing in this game is notably terrible. It doesn’t the help the combat (which promises to be good, given the variety of available murder tools) is bad, really bad, by like Silent Hill 1 standards. Perhaps most damning, for a series predicated on gory, gruesome deaths, the violence is just not shocking in the slightest. Now, I know that the sequel (Saw II) remedied that, but that didn’t help me. There’s sure some good ideas here, and I think I may check out the sequel, but for now I’ll settle with an honest 1000g.

Cars

You've now not only ruined Pixar, you killed my Saturday. Thanks, buddy.

Cars represents my first stop into licensed games for kids. Sadly, it’s not going to be my last. Coming in I had heard that Cars wasn’t that bad of a game. Frankly, I’m not sure what game those people were playing. To be certain, the game has a nice open-world presentation, and decent vocal performances from all the actors of the original movie. The story is simple but effective for the game, and the visuals are evocative of the style of movie. Unfortunately, almost all the parts where it’s supposed to be a game fall short. Racing itself is simple, but clunky. Physics have an arcade quality, but the lack of impact modeling means that you’ll be bouncing around the course like a moronic brick.

If it were just a racing game, Cars would be just fine. Seeing that it’s a kids’ game, however, stupid activities inevitably enter into the mix. Remember that part in the movie when Lightning and Mater went tractor tipping? Sure, that was funny. Remember that part where they had to carefully navigate a series of trenches and searchlights to carefully spook the cow-tractors? Yeah, me neither. The camera in these events puts even King Kong’s cinematic nonsense to shame. I’ve never fought for perspective so hard; in the end the cameraman won, because he got to look at whatever the hell he wanted. Me? Not so much. To compound matters, the game (despite appearing like an open-world environment) is a dizzying series of invisible walls that make navigating the many challenges feel like a chore. It took about 10 hours to get the 1000g, and my only regret is that there will probably be other Cars games to come…sigh.

And so it goes...

So that was my week, my first week to dive into this craziness. So far, I’m completing these game 100%, taking time to do sidequests and other activities, and wringing every last bit of content out of them, so I can’t exactly feel dirty about any of it yet. I did have to cheat a bit to get it done, but apart from that, I feel like I’m working hard. Yet it’s certainly work, although I’m holding out hope for a real diamond in the rough. Some of these games have been annoying for sure, but Cars is the first one that started to really hurt. Nevertheless I remain undaunted in my achievement-whoring insanity. Next up on the chopping block? Probably my will to live…

But hey, if you played any of these games and enjoyed them, more power to you! More news to come as I make progress and complete titles.

Thanks for reading this long, long post. I’ve received such good feedback, and the mods have given me great love by posting my blog to the front page. Thank you all; Giant Bomb has the best community, hands down.

15 Comments

Achievements that make you feel dirty, so very dirty...

It all started with a bet, as these things usually seem to do. Until a week ago, I had never cared too much about Xbox 360 achievements in the competitive sense. In the abstract, I’ve been a fan because they motivate me to get a lot more out of my games than I otherwise might. But I never quite understood why people looked at points like an arms race. After all, even a quick glance at Trueachievements.com makes it clear that people hack achievements, and find other ways to illegitimately bolster their score (Fallout 3 PC, anyone?). Then again, as gamers we do maintain an impeccable ability to make a competition out of ANYthing. I remember during the earliest days of Giant Bomb, people were gaming the Wiki submission points on pages to try and increase their “score” on the page. Yeesh…

Even though I have always enjoyed earning points (or trophies) in games, I never played games for the mere sake of getting them. But then the bet happened. I was at a bar with a good buddy of mine; we were talking about Duke Nukem Forever, and then he pulled up his phone and said “wow man, you’re finally about to catch me,” showing that I was about 200 points behind him, and that we were both less than a full game away from 70,000. The conversation continued until eventually we wagered on who could hit 70k fastest.

This could be a problem...

I figured I was a shoe-in to win. My friend had been an achievement booster since day one, and had played virtually every title with an easy 1000 gamerscore. I, on the other hand, never played an “easy achievement game” for the sake of the points, meaning that there was a veritable library of titles that would allow me a quick thousand, and theoretically an easy win. So, I did my research, looked up the simplest games on TrueAchievements, and went to Gamestop. I picked up “King Kong,” and developed a strategy. To make the whole thing more palatable (or worse maybe), I explained my situation to the store manager. In an amazing (and somewhat unique) display of assistance, she told me I could knock out the games, return them within seven days, and she’d be happy to help with the process. Perfect.

Five hours later, I finished “Peter Jackson’s King Kong,” or whatever the title of that thing is, and I felt dirty. I mean, dirty; after all, 5 hours should not result in 1000 points, yet it did. I think I would have been happier about it if the game wasn’t painfully terrible, but man, this wasn’t exactly Shadow of the Colossus, or even Duke Nukem. Still, I figured I had won the bet, so 50 bucks was worth my shame (I suppose that makes me a cheap whore? I dunno). Unfortunately, my stint with achievement-based prostitution didn’t pan out: my buddy managed to clear 70k in the same night, so the bet was a wash.

...Yes, definitely a problem

True to my plan, I returned the game to the store. However, instead of calling it a day, I decided to pick up “Gun” instead (which also has easy achievements) and go from there. So what happened? Did I finally succumb to the achievement arms race? Not really. No, somewhere, deep in the terribleness of King Kong, I realized I could experience some truly awful relics of past game design. Maybe, somewhere in the doldrums of summer releases, I could experience licensed games, kid-friendly titles, and older launch titles that I would never otherwise examine. Maybe I realized that by completing clunkers, I could have something to talk about. Hell, maybe there’s some unexpected gems in there.

So instead of showering off, I’m going to get dirty, really, really dirty. In the months before I enter law school, I’m going to play as many of these easy achievement games as I can, and write about them in some manner, starting with King Kong, and ending wherever. God help me, this is probably not a good idea, but there’s only one way to find out. right?

That said, has anyone else ever gone this route? Any recommendations for me along the way?

56 Comments

The WiiU? Nintendo seems determined to make more dust-collectors


Like most dedicated gamers out there, I was waiting in anticipation for Nintendo's E3 press conference. Unfortunately, it was hard to come away from the press briefing feeling anything but confused. The new system, as we learned, is a bit baffling to explain. From what I, Giantbomb, and journalists everywhere can tell, Nintendo seems to be certain only of its controller design. Everything else - from how many controllers it will support, to graphical capability and supported titles - elicits a big "I dunno yet" from everyone at Nintendo. But as details come falling out, piece by piece, it appears that the WiiU will follow firmly in the steps of the original Wii. I do not mean to sound hyperbolic, but it looks to me as though Nintendo is transfixed on selling gimmicks, rather than a dedicated, competitive software platform. 
Will I need a Swiffer for you.. I mean, um, WiiU?


Let me back up a few steps, you know, before anyone takes my head off. I should probably explain that I've been a long-time fan of Nintendo. The SNES remains my all-time favorite system, I still love the N64, and I preferred the Gamecube over the PS2; hell, I even owned a Virtual Boy. Still, Nintendo did manage to lose me with the Wii. I bought the system when it was still flying off shelves, played the marquis titles (Smash Bros., Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, etc.) but then got rid of it when it began collecting dust, with no interesting titles in sight.
 
It's that last point I want to belabor: collecting dust. Nintendo has proven that it can produce decent first-party titles, even if they are retreads of the same 4 or 5 IPs. But the dearth of decent 3rd-party titles made the Wii a relic before its time. The majority of my friends own Wii consoles, and I can safely say that not one of those dozen or so systems have seen use in the last year. The GB editors have also remarked that there haven't been many compelling reasons to get that "blue slot" glowing. There are many reasons for this, but the most fundamental is that the Wii's design eschewed graphical and technical capability for its motion control ambitions. In other words, they emphasized the wiimote over modern graphical capability and control functionality. Now I cannot deny that motion controls have permeated gaming, and for better or worse, are here to stay for all three console giants. However, the fact remains that there is only so much that can be done with waggle controls. Third-party failures and developmental bombs (see for example: The Conduit  ) have shown that it's difficult to make any of these schemes compelling. One might argue that only the Wii Sports titles have made it more than a tack-on feature. Ultimately, it's the focus on "gimmick" that has made the console a wasteland for shovelware, and therefore a dust collector.   
 
In the wake of E3, we learned that WiiU is focusing its efforts on a "new technology" to revolutionize gaming. By beaming game-related information to a touch-screen controller, Nintendo hopes to open up new methods for playing console games. But the question remains, is this going to be compelling over the long-term, or is just another short-lived gimmick? Jeff, Alex, and the GB crew took their experiences with the controller as a positive, saying "hey, these WiiU tech demos seemed cool." But let's look back to last year, when they were saying much the same about the 3DS, with its AR games and nifty tech demos. In the end, these technologies were impressive... for about five minutes. Therein lies my concern - are the "shield pose" and "catch me" demos truly revolutionary experiences, or are they the new equivalent of "face-raiders" and Steel Diver's "parascope view?" In truth, we can't know until after the system has launched and established itself, but there is nothing to suggest a broader experience that will rock our collective worlds. If I was being very cynical (which I am wont to do), I would say that the WiiU looks like a home-console version of the DS: one in which your TV serves as the top screen, with the remote functioning as  the DS' touch screen. Given the new controller screen's lack of multi-touch or capacitive interfacing, the comparison is not entirely unfair. 
 
Still, what has me more alarmed are Miyamoto's recent statements that the WiiU will not strongly outperform the Xbox 360 or the PS3. In the immediate term, this will not be a problem. But as Microsoft and Sony ready their new technologies - for 2013 and beyond - a holiday 2012 release for the WiiU could mean that the console may not have long before it becomes "old tech" again, placing it the same category as the Wii is now. In truth, most of us assumed the WiiU wouldn't be the next evolution of graphical fidelity, but we also assumed that it would have a slight advantage, like the Dreamcast did back in 1999. I realize that Nintendo will still be able to offer HD first-party titles, and these may be fantastic, (even if they're more Mario and Zelda titles). However, are ports (especially late-arriving ports) of 3rd-party titles going to serve as incentives for hardcore gamers to buy for the WiiU? In all seriousness, are gamers - particularly those invested in trophies/achievements and XBL/PSN services - going to choose the Nintendo port, all things being equal? 
 
To be fair, this is all speculation on my end. Hell, all of this is speculation, as even Nintendo doesn't know what the WiiU is going to be able to do. But I think its worthwhile to ask whether a console built around another control gimmick (for lack of a better word) and a slight increase in graphical fidelity (over its predecessor) going to be the next big thing? Now I will not be surprised if this thing sells incredibly well, just as the Wii did. Nintendo products have an uncanny ability to sell to broad audiences and demo well on Morning talk shows. I have no way of knowing whether this will be a commercial windfall or financial wipeout. Frankly, I'd be delighted if it was the best thing to ever happen to gaming. But as the E3 buzz settles, I have to wonder, is Nintendo making another dust collector? If so, it's a great thing that Nintendo likes the color white.
12 Comments

The Game is Changing, so, um play with more skill?

 

As I wrote in my last blog post, I've become addicted to the new Mortal Kombat game. I find that the more I play it, the more I want to keep playing it. But this week's TNT made it clear that the game is already evolving (at least somewhat) into the kind of serious fighting game that demands consistent playing and tactic changes. With no disrespect to Jeff, watching him lose a lot - using strategies that would have dominated during the first week of release - made me realize that things are changing, as are the characters that people use. Sure, there are plenty of Scorpions out there spamming the spear and/or teleport, but those are quickly becoming replaced by fighters using Raiden, Kitana, and Sub Zero. So, in blog fashion, I'd like to offer a few observations on how the online game is evolving, at least from my perspective.

 

1) All-out offense is a great way to lose

- Again, watching Jeff on last week's TNT provided some illumination - not anticipating and blocking attacks is now, more than ever, going to cause you to get the crap kicked out of you. The reason is that so many characters can disrupt crazy offense (like smoke or sub-zero). When I look at records, and face off against someone average a 3-to-1 victory spread or better, I can expect to see a defensive match. Most players just wait for the kinds of moves that leave one wide open and vulnerable. Sure, I've seen some players go all out and win with blinding speed, but usually not in the "bigger" matchups. I often win thinking to myself "damn dude, you gotta start blocking that"

 

2) Kombos aren't everything

This may be a contentious point, but learning those ridiculous 12-hit combos isn't a fast track to success, unless those kombos can be paired with excellent timing and fundamentals. However, I think there's this popular opinion that the only real "skill" is in chaining together the largest attack possible. But from what I can tell, this leads a lot of players to play terribly, just waiting for their one opportunity to piece together that 40% beat-down. It's really just an elaborate form of spam at that point, and since it doesn't lead to victory, it's bad spam. Personally, I don't like looking for the big kombos at all. I play Smoke (primarily), and though I can do some big ones (I've landed 12 once) I rarely have a need to go for more than 4 hits at a time. Why? Because additional hits do minor amounts of increased damage, while the input orders for these larger ones may be many times more difficult. So, take Smoke - why do the difficult 5 hit combo that does 25%, when there's an easy 4-hit, with the exact same set up, that does 23%.

 

I catch a lot of crap (mainly from scrubs) because I don't go for the big kombos - but they don't realize that while they're thinking about the crazy button combinations, I'm just waiting patiently for basic openings. For those players just getting started: START small. Learn how to time uppercuts, how to block attack patterns, how to time grabs, and how to do basic sweeps and HP combinations. If you can time these most basic attacks, you can literally beat almost half the players out there. This goes back a little to my last post, but you need to go with whatever works, and if you're like me and don't feel confident in making that 10-hit kombo work, then don't bother with it. The jerks in the King-of-the Hill room are probably going to give you 0.0 anyways, because they are, you know, jerks.

 

3) Fatalities are already getting old

I remember a couple of weeks ago on the Bombcast, Jeff mentioned that people who have to do fatalities all the time are kinda dicks, because they hold everything up. At first, I wanted to disagree with him, but now that I've played more than 500 matches, I don't care to see a single one ever. I still think they can be used to make a point, if say, you beat down that jerk giving 0.0 to every fight, but I have seen every single one in the game probably 50 times or more. Enough already! It's not exactly a matter of skill, is it? It might not be a popular opnion, but I'm done.

 

4) Where is the next patch?

Although I love MK, I have to say that there are some things that need work. I've seen excellent players of almost every character, but certainly some players have it easier than others. I've never seen a successful Shang-Tsung or Sindel, for example. I don't think broad character balances are needed, but damnit if there aren't some bugs that need to be fixed in the game. For example, Raiden's torpedo, when blocked successfully, still puts him out of uppercut/grab range (which is a little ridiculout); don't even get me started on the Johnny Cage X-ray glitch. There are just a few things that need to be tweaked, and this is normal, but the sooner it happens, the better. What's worse is that the netcode in King-of-the-Hill matches is still pretty bad. I have yet to play one where the room didn't get unplayably laggy once certain people came in. To make matters worse, lagged-out matches can result in disconnects being posted. I can honestly say I've never rage quit the game once or left a match before it was over, but yet I have 13 disconnents that showed up after lag-broken matches.

 

5) Ranked Matches are kinda busted

The short story is that the ranked match system leads to completely inconsistent, random matchups. I've maybe completed only 30 or 40 ranked battles, namely because finding a match can take 5 minutes, and once you do, your opponent could be 1000/10, 0/5, or anywhere in between. While Trueskill rankings are assigned to everyone, these don't seem to factor into matchups. But on the whole, the competition in ranked matches is somewhat weak, because there's no way to filter the people you play.

 

6) Player Match Basics

Player matches, on the other hand, tend to be a good indicator of what to expect. If you challenge someone who has a win-loss ratio of over 5:1 with more than 500 games played, then you may be in for a tough time. If you go after someone whoe's closer to 1:1, then it's going to be much better for you. Although, the person who's 1:1 with 1000 games played is probably better than the one with 10. Experience is woth a lot in this one. Yeah, you could boost player matches with a friend, but nobody serious seems to be doing that, at least not if my matches are any indication. So the bottom line: BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU CHALLENGE. To be fair, you need to play better people to get better, but I feel bad when someone who is 0-3 keeps challenging me to a fight (even if I won't go more than 2 out of three with them)

 

Again, these are only my observations, and if you disagree, then that's totally cool. I'm far from being the best player at this game (there are some sick dudes out there), but I feel I've found a modicum of success. Just for full disclosure, I play mostly 1v1 player matches, with main characters being Smoke, Sheeva, and Scorpion, and my record there sits at about 430-105. So your experiences may be WILDLY different from mine.

 

 

 

7 Comments

"It's not cheap if it's in the game!"

 

Like the guys at the Whiskey offices, I've been bit by the MK bug. Altough I have never been a "fighting game guy," and despite the fact that my MK experience ended with the first game as a kid, I cannot stop playing this title. I do not know whether it''s the robust lobby system, or just how good it feels to beat the crap out of someone online, but it's good times no matter how I look at it.

 

Fights can get pretty heated where over-the-top violence is concerned. In playing online, it's not really surprising that some people take losses personally. I'd rather not chat with anyone while playing, but those who have their microphones up tend to be vocal (and vulgar for that matter). What really surprises me however, are the hateful messages I'll get from time to time. I hear complaints (some directed at me, others in lobbies, etc.) ranging from "all you do is spam," to "you only pick the same character," to "you use cheap moves." Okay this could go on and on, I suppose it's not much different from most online experiences - just like in Call of Duty, the losing team will invariably claim the other side was camping, or some other nonsense - no matter what the reality was.

 

 

But is there a "right" way to play games like this? Is there? To the losing Call of Duty squad, I'm sure it would be better for the other team to run like suicidal idiots into the middle of the map. And I'm sure that for MK players, it'd be nice for their opponents to walk right forward and hit basic FP combos. But doesn't strategy demand something better than that? Frankly, I believe the statement in this post: if it's in the game, then it's fair play. Yes, the game may be unbalanced at launch, and changes may be made, but if you can abuse the game's systems, or simply master them, then doing whatever works is the right strategy.

 

 

Going back to MK - one thing people seem to get up in arms about are "spammers," i.e., those who repeatedly hammer on special moves. But in a practical sense, anyone with a modicum of skill can get around this by blocking and/or jumping, and then abuse the other player. If you suggest that combos are better, then I could argue that it's "cheap" for one unbreakable combo to do 50% or more in damage, no matter how much skill it takes to execute. In fact, I have yet to see a player who doesn't repeat the same moves or combo moves when they continue to land. And I know I've played against some that pulled off some ridiculous moves - I particularly remember one Sonya who managed to juggle me 14 times by simply mashing Front Punch when I was in a corner. Do I think that should get patched out? Sure, but until then, it's fair game. Yes, in some circumstances games can be "broken," but the only sane response in that regard is not to play, or play with friends, rather than send hateful messages (which really only build a case for Microsoft to ban you). 

 

 

I suppose there are some exceptions where enemy AI is concerned. The way that enemy bosses can absorb attacks in single player is unfair by design, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

 

 

I never expected to be any good at MK, and really, I'm not. I win a bit more than I lose (I'm at around 110-45 in player matches right now) but I get my tail handed to me on a relatively regular basis. And you know what... that's cool. I can make note of it, and try to defend better next time. I've made a lot of friends by sending compliments to players that impress me, and I love it, because nobody does that!  It helps that MK has a long history of imprecision (at least compared to some of the Capcom games) which means I'm more willing to let it all slide. Ultimately, I'm trying to have fun, and I don't have to win to have a great match. In fact, the lion's share of my losses come from 3-round heartbreakers, and I would have it any other way.

 

 

So do I have a point here, or am I completely missing something?

44 Comments

Endings- The Good, The Bad, the AC:B


With every game I've completed over the last few months, I feel like I'm starting to understand what works for me and what doesn't. I probably should have written on this topic some time ago, but I wanted to spare some of the rants (like my   Persona 3 tirade)      that have come to mind, and take a more measured approach.    In general, I that good game endings are becoming few and far between; not because developers are incapable of concluding or producing a well written narrative, but rather because they have more interest in maintaining a franchise that may last an indeterminate number of titles (a-la Call of Duty).

 

I certainly don't begrudge game developers the need to make franchise games, and earn as much as possible. To the contrary, the proliferation of sequels tends to give us better titles in the immediate term. Think about it - Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2, etc. "Sequel-itis," as it gets dubbed, allows develpers to build assets, engines, and other tools that can be iterated upon; in short, it can be a wonderful thing. The problem arises when developers assume that their games will have sequels, and that every games will play the sequel in question, and therefore can leave gaping plot holes to be wrapped up at an undisclosed time. With some franchises, we have been waiting many years from something approaching closure. But not all devs decide to go the "cliffhanger route," many don't and are better for it. Other developers just leave games on a question mark without any real hope of a sequel.

 

With that foundation, I'll cite some examples of what I think works, and what doesn't. I'm going to try to keep the spoilers here to a minimum, and I'll place spoiler tags on the discussions regardless, so no worries. But these will not be detailed spoilers if possible

 

Portal/Portal 2 -the good

I've never been one to jump on the "everything Valve does is magic" bandwagon. Hell, I though Half-life 2 was mediocre at best (yes, not a popular opinion I know). However, the first Portal wrapped itself up nicely. Chell (the player-character) had won, GLaDoS had been defeated, and "that song" played. The door was left open for a sequel, but the immediate situation had been resolved. Valve did retroactively change the ending for the PC version once Portal 2 was in the works, but this didn't affect anyone's previous enjoyment of the game. With Portal 2, Valve knows it has a potential franchise on its hands, yet decided to wrap Chell's story up nicely, at least as far as we can tell. Aperture science keeps running (in a manner of speaking) and Chell ostensibly goes her own way. I have yet to talk to or hear from anyone who was not supremely satisfied.

 

 

Dead Space 2- the good

I

was a major fan of the first entry in the Dead Space series. As if my user icon isn't an indication of it, I have been a long-time survival horror fan, playing almost every title in the genre since Resident Evil on the PS1. Dead space scratched that itch well, and though the survival elements have been downgraded in the second entry, Dead Space 2 is a fine title. Dead Space 2's ending finds Isaac succeeding in destroying the Marker that corrupts the Sprawl. The ending looks bleak, but a last-minute save finds Isaac safe and well for - wait for it - another sequel. But I find this rewarding in that the immediate threat is defeated, another character has been added to the lore (for what that's worth), and the last terse bit of the end made me laugh out loud (it only makes sense in context of the first game's ending).

 

 

Enslaved: Oddyssey to the West - the Bad

By all accounts, Enslaved was a solid action title; not superb, but solid. Containing some of the most effectively realized characters, it became hard not to at least identify with Monkey and Trip as they made their way through a dystopian, albeit green, apocalypse. Unfortunately the ending for that game sqanders it (Vinny ranted about this on the bombcast- and he was correct). Effectively, the ending comes out of left fielf, not being set up or established in an effective manner at all; the last moments of the game show the main characters with confusted looks on their faces as the camera pans away, as if they cannot believe that the devs went this route. I can only assume that Ninja Theory thought it would be kind of a "Sixth Sense" thing where repeat plays would inspire "ahhhh" kind of moments in which you see how events lined up. But repeat plays of Enslaved only reveal terrible continuity errors. Why this route was taken, I do not know.

 

 

Dragon Age 2 - the Bad

Enough has been said regarding Dragon Age 2, that I scarcely need to repeat it here: overused maps, little variation in gamepley, a plot that doesn't come together until the final moments, and an arguably oversimplified inventory mechanic (i.e., lack of party armors). By no means would I call DA2 a bad game, but it lacked the polish I've come to expect from Bioware. Put simply, it's the first Bioware title that I cannot give an "A" to in retrospect. No small part of this frustration comes from the Game's cliffhanger ending. DA2 builds its narrative by having a party member talking about the Champion in the tone of "we never knew what would happen to lead to these cataclysmic events," Unfortunately, there are no cataclysmic, world-shaking events that the player partakes in, at least not until the end. The game concludes with speech over cutscene, explaining that the Champion's actions cause some serious backlash, and now he/she cannot be found. To compound this, it's suggested that something major is happening that could involve both the Chamption, and the Grey Warden player-character from DA1. Unfortunately, that may (or may not) be answered in another game.

 

 

Assassin's Creed 2/Brotherhood - the WHY?

Trying to explain exactly what's happening in the Assassin's Creed series is a little like trying to explain the story of Final Fantasy XIII to a brain-damaged hamster. Effectively, the story relates to the centuries-long war between the Assassins and Templars, which apparently infiltrates all levels of government and business, and is somehow liked to world domination through these apples, which may be tied to some alternate deity and ancient race who created....AFGHHH. You get the point. But in a more practical sense, the game follows the exploits of Nolan North, erm, Desmond Miles and his tiny group of Assassins as they try to find these ancient artifacts of power. But both AC2, and in a worse way, AC:B, end in the sharpest cliffhangers imaginable. The latter closes the camera on a shock death of a main character. Well, by all accounts, it seems that this is a crazy good story- so what's the problem? Simple, there's no resolution of any kind for gamers to get behind. The assumption is that players will have to play through every game (now at least 4) to understand what the hell is going on. Yes, you can of course Youtube these things, but that defeats the purpose of playing through a story, at least in my view.

 

 

To summarize, I see different trends. Sequels within larger franchises can wrap up effectively by putting a period on the immediate events of the game, while leaving the door open for bigger issues or different stories to be pursued in later sequels. The problem comes when developers make the assumption that gamers should be required to play 2, 3, 4, or more games to get the smallest amount of closure.

 

 

I have to write from my own perspective here, but this is a relevant issue for people like me, who may not have the time and/or money to keep buying and playing each game in every series. I know I'll be in law school this Fall, so it's not likely that I'll be able to keep up with series like Assassins' Creed or Dragon Age. Frankly, I'll be lucky to get to any games while school is in, and so for me, these will remain entirely unresolved stories.  Games should do what they can to build their brands, but not at the expense of the individual games' experience. This is even more relevant when secondary titles may never happen. Think about Ubisoft's Prince of Persia (the cell-shaded one), Too Human, or Alpha Protocol - assumptions that these would be bigger franchises left big holes in the narrative when all was said and done.

 

Do you agree, or am I missing something critical?

 

12 Comments

Bad DLC...the sworn enemy of S-Ranks everywhere


Well, now that GB's achievement tracking is back up and running, a quick perusal of my stats has made one thing very clear:  
 

Bad DLC is the bane of my existence.

Not that DLC is necessarily a problem, but the overwhelming majority of it ends up ruining my hard-won s-ranks. In some cases, I'm happy to go back to the game, but more often than not DLC is not worth either the price of admission, or my efforts for that matter.  
 
For example, Metro 2033 added some several months after release: not so much story content, but rather a few weapons and difficulty modes. For one, I'm not paying for weapons or difficulties. Secondly, why on earth would I replay the whole game for it? I could multiply examples: Dragon Age had some of the worst DLC I can remember in ages (even Awakening was a letdown as far as I'm concerned). And let's not forget about Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot: who doesn't want to play boring 100-wave arena fights in 5-hour-long stretches? Or who didn't want more mutliplayer costumes and maps for Bioshock 2 and Tron: Evolution?
 
While I can't exactly blame companies for wanting to cash in, I'd be lying to you if I didn't look at some of my rankings and let out one hell of a sigh. I wouldn't recommend GB changing its system or anything like that, but it's frustrating to say the very least. I feel that DLC that has achievements attached should at least offer some compelling reason to jump back into the game byeond points. A good example of this would be Fallout 3's five DLC packs, or Mass Effect 2's Shadow Broker DLC.  
 
That said, are there any games where bad DLC blew your S-Rank, or just wasn't worth it?
19 Comments