It'll Always Be Tuesday

I've never been one to open up publicly. But then again, I've never felt this way before.

On July 8th, 2013 I learned about the death of Ryan Davis. He was the co-founder of Giant Bomb, a videogame website, he was a videogame journalist and he was one of the two biggest inspirations in my life. Back in the early 2000's I was way into videogames, a fact I became comfortable with. I started watching videos on Gamespot.com and eventually was introduced to Jeff Gerstmann and Ryan Davis, two dudes I felt "got it". Maybe it was their attitude, maybe it was how they took their jobs with a grain of salt and humor or maybe it was just because they're both fucking rad dudes. When Jeff was fired I watched Ryan Davis leave his job to go co-found a new website with Jeff. That's crazy, that's fucking insane to leave a secure job to go start yet another gaming website in the hopes of it succeeding. But that's friendship and that's following the right motives, a lesson Ryan Davis nailed into me through his actions.

"He's just some videogame guy" is what 99% of the people that know me would say. After all, their exposure to him was small bits of videos that involved him, let's face it, acting like the loveable ass that he was. He was fantastic at that, his sarcasm and humorous stabs at others were second to none. Ryan was so much more than a journalist, he was an entertainer and a profound part of any fan of Giant Bomb's life. Every Tuesday we'd welcome Ryan into our iPods, cars, computers and headphones with his always wonderful "It's Tuuuuueeeesssday..." and everything felt just a tad more tolerable that day. His wit and sarcasm helped make the live shows and countless quick looks he was a part of all the more entertaining. And his unfathomable knowledge about the most obscure crap made him a strange bastion of comfort for us fans.

I never had the opportunity to meet Ryan, though I saw him in person twice. Both times were at PAX East on two separate occasions, but I just couldn't bring myself to say hi. Ryan's persona was larger than life and the confidence he exuded made him seem that much more intimidating in a weird way. It's comforting to read all the tweets from friends about how amazing he was, in a way I think it's how those of us who didn't know him hoped he'd be. To me, though, Ryan Davis was a special kind of guy. He was your typical videogame nerd with an edge that said "fuck you, videogames are cool" and you agreed. I can only imagine the people who took solace in his attitude and confidence, he was one of a kind. And when that camera was rolling, goddamn he knew how to host/bullshit with the best of them.

Ryan Davis was more than anyone could have imagined, to an entire community he was some weird internet icon I'm sure he'd never agree to being. Nonetheless, the Giant Bomb community loved that man more than the thousands of posts can possibly express, and I'm proud to say I'm a part of this community. Ryan was something different to each of us, to me he was an inspiration. His mix of harsh criticism and amazing frank yet funny humor made me strive to do what he did. Every word he's published and every video he's been a part of has made me want to make just as big a dent in the world as Ryan has, though I doubt I'd come close.

Like many of us in the GB community I never met Ryan, but I'd consider him a friend. His jokes made us laugh, yet his laugh was so much grander. His comments made us squint at times, yet you knew he was a good guy. His presence made a live stream about games feel warm and welcoming and now that feeling is disappearing. I miss Ryan Davis, and as I look at the clock I realize it's 1 in the morning, it's Tuesday and Ryan can't be here to let me know. But it'll always be Tuesday in my book, because I'll never forget Ryan Davis.

R.I.P

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What I'm Playing: Numen: Contest of Heroes

Numen: Contest of Heroes surprised me on Steam the other day as it was fun looking RPG that was only $2.50. Obscure cheap games often scare me because it means they're either absolute garbage, great games with a few major flaws, or something completely out of this world. With the ever growing free gaming market taking over I decided to see what a $10 game on sale for $2.50 had to offer.

Numen: Contest of Heroes is a RPG set in ancient Greece developed by a small Czech Republic developer Cinemax. With a decent story and a familiar interface Numen blends some interesting ideas with some frustrating mechanics to create a game that leaves a wanting feeling from the moment you click start.

Contest of Heroes kicks off with a surprisingly tragic tale of your chosen protagonist. You can pick from a boy or a girl and after you select your gender you're tossed into a small Greek village filled with people who have hovering exclamation points over their heads. Numen controls like the majority of MMORPGs and third person RPGs play in today's market. Players control their soon to be hero with the WASD keys while using either the mouse or keyboard shortcuts to attack enemies and interact with the world. Right off the bat it becomes apparent that two things are going to be the bane of any experienced player's playthrough.

After getting your bearings you start questing right from the get-go. After an awkward talk with your uncle who explains to you that the warrior class is the best choice and being a mage or archer is useless you set off killing and gathering things in typical RPG fashion. Most quests in Numen follow the typical kill 10 X and gather 5 Y. While some quests differ in mechanics, such as being a spider or finding a bird, most quests are simple and a bit dry.

Killing tons of things is the name of the game in Numen as most areas are populated with enemies who need to be killed so you can level up and move on in the game. The combat works well enough with the left mouse button attacking and the number keys assigned to various spells for whatever class you may be. The three starting classes in Numen fall into the staples of most role playing games. There's a warrior, a mage, and an archer. However, picking your class isn't as simple as clicking what you want to be at the select screen. Instead Numen takes a different approach and let's the player's choice of weapons and spells at the beginning of the game lead to their class choice at a later cut scene.

The problem I ran into here was that I wanted to be an archer but towards the end of my childhood phase my bow broke and there was no vendor around to fix it. So, wanting to move the story along, I grabbed my wand and headed out blasting baddies with some fire and shadows. At the end of my childhood the cut scene revealed that I was fond of magic and proven to be a squishy mage. I like the mage class, but it's not what I wanted to play.

After having your class decided you pick a god to worship. Each god has different abilities to offer you for leveling up your favor with them. Zeus gives you extra damage spells, Poseidon provides some heals and buffs, and Athena gives the player buffs on buffs on buffs. From their the game explains that you train for years and after that you're dropped off on an island. This is where the game loses a lot of its charm and becomes more of a grind that is covered with a simplistic overlay.

The graphics of Numen are decent but clearly dated. Objects and people look decent enough but they don't have any great features in particular. Combat looks decent enough with creatures and enemies taking hits and dishing out pain in ways that looks alright. Overall the game doesn't have any one graphical asset it holds above the rest but none of it is awful either.

Perhaps the strangest, and most fun, aspect of the game is the text. There is no voice over in Numen and all talking is done with text boxes. The translation reads as if it was done with a dated version of Google Translate and that makes some of the dialogue fantastic. Reading through pages and pages of in game text isn't exciting but the occasional muck up makes the reading much more enjoyable.

Sound design in Contest of Heroes is much like its graphical assets, borderline decent. The spells make the sounds you expect them to make and the hits have the sound of a good slam behind them. Monsters have some decent sounds when they attack and die but other than that the game can feel empty sometimes. The ambient music isn't anything astonishing and often times it feels too repetitive.

Numen: Contest of Heroes has some decent gameplay mechanics and some interesting design choices all bundled up with elements that are both familiar and dated in an ever growing RPG landscape. It's not a game that will make you want to stop playing whatever RPG has you hooked at the moment but it will hold your interest for a few hours, if only to read some memorable text.

If you liked this I have more stuff like it at my site TinyGrenade.com and hopefully soon I'll have videos up on my Youtube channel too, thanks for any and all support.

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Orange Envelope Get! (Vanquish)

Vanquish showed up in the mail the other day and completely took over my life...for a few hours. Everything from the ridiculous characters to the giant robots to the incredibly strange dialogue had me hooked. Weird in-game mentions of eBay, explosions, a main character who smokes mid-battle, it's all here. Coming from the studio that developed Bayonetta all the craziness came off as completely warranted.

Vanquish starts off some basic tutorials that, while helpful, do not prepare the player for how insane some battles can truly be. After learning how to move Sam, the dude in the crazy powerful suit, the player is treated to the complete and utter obliteration of San Francisco at the hands of the merciless Russians. What follows is a 4-5 hour adrenaline rush that features cover based shooting and insane boss fights. The basic shooting mechanics are very similar to most third person shooters, except some of the buttons are different. While most shooters use X to reload Vanquish uses X to take cover and RB to reload and pick up weapons, a switch that causes constant confusion with me throughout my playing. Besides that one little confusion, that can probably be switched in the controls, the game controls extremely well.

Using the left bumper the player can preform a slide maneuver to get around the battlefield quickly. This comes in handy against enemies with weak spots and when you need to take cover quickly. There is also a slow motion effect used when you preform a dodge and quickly aim afterwords. This is tied to the suits power and drains as you stay in slow motion. The gratification of tying the two together in Vanquish is incredible, boosting around a level only to cut into a slow-mo sequence to gun down three incoming enemies is immensely satisfying.

The guns in Vanquish are varied enough that it feels like most situations have multiple solutions. You have the standard shotgun, heavy machine-gun, assault rifle, rocket launcher, and grenades (both fragmentation and EMP). Then there are the more unique guns including a lock-on laser which can take out multiple enemies and a LFE gun that is basically an EMP shotgun. Coupled with the tight controls the guns help Sam make quick work of any nasty Russian robot he comes across.

Boss fights in Vanquish are done incredibly well and add a great feeling of scale to the game. Some of the monstrous bosses can kill Sam with a single shot and make the feeling of boosting away from sure annihilation exhilarating. There is nothing like dodging a death blow last minute only to turn around and finish the fight with a well placed shot. Even the smaller bosses make for great fights as their speed and deadliness make the fight more about boosting away from their incoming assaults and quickly finding cover when needed.

The story is ridiculous, as it should be, and the voice acting is actually pretty good. Sam comes off as some strange mix of Solid Snake and Marcus Fenix with his gruff voice and constant quips in the middle of crazy situations. At times it feels like the localization wasn't done as well as it should be but that often feels like a plus rather than a problem. Hearing characters spit out strange dialogue during a fight or after a battle makes the whole universe feel like some strange alternate reality filled with uneducated super soldiers, it's great.

Above all the shooting and craziness is a meta-game that keeps track of just about everything you do. From your deaths, to the percentage of cover you use, to your score for each level, and so on. At the end it is all tallied up to show you how you did and what can be improved, and incentive for many to go back and improve. While this constant reminder of "yes this is a video game" detracted a bit from each section it also challenged me to not die for extra points and to try and best my scores from previous levels. After beating the game any act can be replayed to increase your score.

If I had to nitpick about anything it would be the following two problems. At times it feels like the EMP grenades are the most powerful weapons in the game and can solve almost any situation. Also, due to the cover mechanics sometimes the best solution is to take cover and pop out to gun down enemies slowly which detracts from the rushing feel of the whole game. Also, the soldiers you're with typically do nothing to help but their chatter is usually pretty entertaining.

My time with Vanquish was great, albeit brief, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone wanting a great rental. It's a fantastic game that has a lot going for it, the hinted sequel is something I'd love to see in the future.

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Finally Played the Damn Game

So Alan Wake showed up in the mail the other day. (Yes I have Gamefly, it works for us college gamers) After hearing Brad's praise of the game and watching enough quicklooks and gameplay footage of the game to make me feel like I had already played it I decided to give it a whirl anyway. As somewhat of a side note I hate survival horror games, I'm not a huge fan of being tense while gaming and I hate surprises. Needless to say this game has plenty of the aforementioned qualities and I still came away from Alan Wake with an immense feeling of happiness.

Everything from the gripping story to the mostly tight controls made each plot point and gunfight more and more enjoyable. The fact that this game came out over a year ago only adds to its credit. Since I can't always get the newest games when they come out I try to buy the best of the best when they're available and let others fall by the wayside. However, Alan Wake is a game that should not be missed by anyone. It has it's rough spots and it isn't perfect by any means but if you like interesting gunplay, gripping stories, or both you should really give this game a whirl.

I think it says a lot that I played through the game much like how I read an intense novel, pushing ahead with as much effort as possible to reach the next event or reveal. If you let Alan Wake slip by you and still are unsure of whether or not to play it just go buy it, rent it, or steal it and give it a go. It's worth a playthrough.

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Terraforming the PC Landscape

This weekend I played primarily PC games in my free time, and I couldn't remember the last time I had done so without it being an MMO.  I love PC games, for a while they were the only games I would ever play. Growing up on Diablo and Team Fortress had me focused on building a gaming PC in order to keep up with the new releases.  Over time my Xbox took priority and the PC slowly became a platform I used for occasional MMO play and some TF2 on the side.  However, looking at Steam this weekend, I realized that the PC landscape is changing and, good or bad, it's pretty awesome. 
 
Steam had Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West on sale for $2.50. Wait, let me repeat, two dollars and fifty freaking cents! It's a third person class based shooter that, in my first four hours of playing, sucked away all of my free time with its strangely addicting and free flowing shooting.  There was also Magicka which stole away some time from my studying with its great writing and enormous selection of mix and match elemental magic.  At first it just seemed like press these 3 keys to win but later on the combos became much more intuitive and much more enjoyable to pull off against goblins, highlanders, and giant snakes.  Finally there was League of Legends, a free to play DoTA clone.  League of Legends has been out for a while now but it is a constantly growing landscape.  You pick and build up your hero and go on killing enemies with the best strategies possible.   
 
These are all examples of the ever changing landscape that is the PC.  League of Legends thrives on players buying, with real money, characters and unlockable skins in order to keep the game running.  Magicka is yet another low priced game that offers a huge amount of originality. Steam in general with all of its sales is a huge reason to why people are continuing to buy games and test out all of the awesome games they let people play for free on the weekends.   
 
Games like the Total War series, The Witcher 2, and Crysis 2 all have their places in the heats of the PC crowd.  But all of these other options are allowing people to see what PC games have to offer.  Sure, Facebook and flash games are taking a hold of the casual players and the "non-gamers".  But things like Steam help the people who do play PC games, or want to start playing them, realize the variety that the PC has to offer.  The PC is a constantly scaling platform that has full-on games and downloadable games all together in one neat bundle, turn yours on once and a while.  

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Perhaps "Arcade" is the Wrong Term

Back when I first bought a Xbox 360 the marketplace was filled with silly arcade games that I primarily used to waste time while other videos or games were downloading.  It was all about the blockbuster hits and massively entertaining games I paid $60 for each month.  The $10 games I bought every few months or so were just time killers in between short periods of boredom or uncertainty as to what I wanted to play next.  However, the XBLM has become a haven of video game greatness and I would argue that some games you pay $10-$15 for are more worthwhile and fun than the games we so readily pay big cash for.
 
Stacking, Torchlight, Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex, Limbo, Pacman CE: DX, the list goes on and on.  These games are cheap but they pack hours and hours of originality and creativity into their tiny non-existent packages.  For example, Singularity is a fun shooter in my mind.  It has a good feel with it's shots and the time manipulation is entertaining for both combat and puzzles.  After about eight hours the single player is complete and...you're done.  The multiplayer isn't for everyone, nor is any multiplayer game for that matter, and there isn't  much left to do once you beat the game.  Singularity came out at a starting price of $59.99 and had about 8-10 hours worth of single player game time, while games like Torchlight or Castle Crashers cost around $15 and have easily four times as much content in them.  
 
Then there's the originality of downloadable games.  Not to pick on Singularity, I really enjoyed it it's just fresh in the brain, but it is comparable to a laundry list of videogames and videogame concepts.  Time manipulation has been done before and so has atmospheric first person puzzling/shooting.  When is the last time you played a Russian stacking doll game?  The art design, the puzzle design, and the humor of Stacking sets it apart from anything else on the market, be it retail or downloadable.
 
It's becoming readily apparent that downloadable games in general are filling the niches that big budget games can not. It's like indie music, Animal Collective doesn't sound like anything you're likely to hear on your FM radio stations nor will their albums make as much money as the new Lady Gaga album.  We call them "Arcade games" "downloadable games" and other ambiguous titles, but in reality these games are just that...games. 
 
Double Fine recently became a behemoth, no pun intended, in the downloadable game sphere.  With the releases of Costume Quest, Stacking, and the soon to be out Trenched they are taking what is fun about game development and making it a reality.  After casually talking to Tim Schafer at PAX East it's apparent that they don't sit down and say "what will make us tons of money" they instead ask "who has an awesome idea and how can we make it real?" You can be walking around in a mobile trench killing TV monsters or become a knight taking down barbarians to save a princess, why limit yourself to wartime shooters?  
 
When it comes down to it I guess it just feels like imagination is being held onto by a select group of individuals.  These are the people who make games fun and unique and make people say "holy crap you have to play Limbo".  I don't expect this x factor to sink into mainstream big budget games, I just want it to stay alive in the downloadable sphere of gaming. Basically, if I see a $15 Call of Duty game...I'm out. 

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Comic Based Games and Bosses

I just got finished playing Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and it got me thinking about comic book games and bosses.  The game is filled with an daunting amount of "cannon fodder" enemies.  These are enemies that are simply there to beat down and get points fast. Sure, they make you feel like the powerful hero Spidey is but at the same time are they totally necessary in every comic book game? 
 
Batman: Arkham Asylum was quite possibly one of the best games based on a comic hero in the last decade or so.  It featured a slick combat system, great upgrades, clever settings, and decent boss fights.  It managed to stay fresh and fun by not constantly throwing groups of 10 or 20 minions at you every time you turned a corner.  Instead it relied on throwing puzzles at you more than enemies.  This made me feel much more intelligent while still reminding me that I was playing the Dark Knight who can take down a 20 man group every now and then.   Throwing large groups of dumb enemies at the player is a cheap way to make them feel strong without having to be creative. Sure the art assets changed in each dimension, and Noir was more stealth based, but the same formula of taking down baddies to get to a boss was the same. 
 
Even the bosses were a bit too bland, a complaint that I had about Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Whether it is Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, or Superman there are fully fleshed out villains at developer's disposal.  These are villains who come back to fight the hero time and time again...so why have them in the game as just a simple boss fight? Why not instead make the bosses and villains as important as a game like Shadow of the Colossus did? Each villain has such great back story and often times they have amazing abilities as well.  Instead of having the player fight thousands of baddies for a half hour why not make an intriguing boss fight that lasts just as long.  That doesn't mean a half hour of button mashing and quick time events. But instead smartly crafted levels that deal with the boss in a unique way, think Scarecrow in Batman: Arkham Asylum.  These types of boss battles are possible they are just few and far between. 
 
Heroes in video games have an incredible rogues gallery of interesting villains. Playing Shattered Dimensions I saw the most frightening incarnations of the Hobgoblin and Carnage along with the interesting versions of Green Goblin and Dr Octopus as well.  It was disappointing to see these great characters ruined by lackluster atmosphere and simplistic game play.  The same goes for Bane, Killer Croc, and Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum too.   
 
Who knows maybe someone out there is hard at work on a boss focused superhero game.  Or maybe we'll be fighting nameless baddies forever.      

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PAX East 2011 Afterthoughts

PAX East 2011 was my first official PAX and what an amazing time it was.  It became such an incredibly memorable experience not because of the new games and free shirts but instead because of the fans and exhibitors that were there.  Everyone from Tim Schafer to the guy in line with me at the Duke Nukem Forever booth won me over multiple times.  
 
My friend Ryan and I headed out at 4 A.M. from our little town on Long Island and headed out with our sights firmly set on Boston.  I had absolutely no sleep from the night before and had just got done working a seven hour shift which ended at midnight...and I was driving.  The drive there was rough but luckily the overwhelming feeling that PAX exuded upon me when I first walked into the BCEC was enough to wash away all of my tiredness, mostly.  We made our way around the enormous line of literally thousands to wait with what seemed like all of PAX to see Jane McGonigal, the author of Reality is Broken.  We filed in and sat down for an amazing keynote speach, Jane was amazing period. 
 
Now, on to what made PAX East so special.  The games were undoubtedly incredible to play and watch. Seeing footage of Battlefield 3, Duke Nukem Forever, Portal 2, and others was a gift like no other. But being able to talk to fans of video games who were completely judgement free of everyone around them was unbelievable.  It was easily the most comfortable feeling in the world to walk around the show floor and know that everyone was totally cool with whatever it was you were into.  No one here was made fun of for liking WoW or Pokemon, instead they were considered the vast majority.  I talked with so many awesome people who just wanted to voice how much they loved games and what games they were looking forward to. 
 
Even the exhibitors were passionate and friendly.  Their wasn't a vibe of "play it and go" instead it was play this game while I tell you its features and then tell me what you like and what you don't like.  For them it's free beta testing and for us it's a chance to talk to people like Tim Schafer about Double Fine's awesome ideas when it comes to developing games and handing off projects to those who deserve it.  
 
PAX East 2011 was beyond memorable for me. It was a birthday gift like no other and a memory I can't possibly forget.  I highly urge anyone who even remotely enjoys video games to try and make it to a PAX event or even a similar video game trade show near you in order to experience the most passionate and kind people along with the most amazing and entertaining video games. 
 
Thank you PAX.  

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