The Imagination Enhancer - Available Wednesday!

Back in November when my brother and his wife and son were here to visit the baby I had him try out the demo for the Seasame Street game. My brother, being the wise father of a two year old, decided to give the demo a run-through after his son went to bed.

They did not play it the next night.

The Kinect is a very cool piece of technology with some very real and very obvious limitations. The Seasame Street game gets around the "can't detect tiny hyper children" part by recognizing the adult as the player. The child can simply jump around and as long as the adult does the motions, the game progresses. It's a good idea, but it's not exaclty fun for the adult.

Double Fine, the developer behind the Seasame Street game (quick note for those that aren't into games, Double Fine doesn't usually make kids games, they make awesome games packed with humor and style) is about to release another Kinect game, one that celebrates the hardware's shortcomings. It's called Happy Action Theater, and it's not so much a game as it is an imagination enhancer.

Check out the GiantBomb.com Quick Look below featuring some of the Double Fine guys. Before I was a dad I would have just seen a bunch of dudes in their 30s doing ridiculous things and laughed, but now I see it and I think, "Man, if only my son could play this with me...but he just now learned how to roll over." So, consider this a public service announcement: If you have an Xbox 360, a Kinect and kids old enough to play something like this, you should get it, soon. Happy Action Theater comes out February 1 and it's just $10.

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Kingdoms of Amalur: Bad Timing

Have you played the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo? It’s an excellent case study for the importance of properly timing a video game release.

Reckoning (as I’m going to call it from now on) is a role playing game by Big Huge Games, a developer stacked with talented industry veterans. The game appears to blend the deep customization and stat-porn of RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout, the active, responsive combat of character action games like God of War and Darksiders, and the whimsical, vibrant art design of games like Fable and World of Warcraft.

As it turns out, some of the folks behind Reckoning also worked on some of the Elder Scrolls games, like Oblivion, and it shows. There’s a surprising amount of depth as you drill down into the character menus. From what I’ve played, the combat seems responsive and dynamic. Unlike most stat-based RPGs, the action in Reckoning feels more dependent on player skill, not on levels and behind-the-scenes dice rolls. And the art style is incredibly bright, lively and brimming with character—it’s a refreshing bloom of color in a dull gray winter.

It seems to hit all its targets. So Reckoning should turn out to be a great game right? Maybe.

The responses I’ve seen from the demo aren’t exactly positive. Yes it’s true that the game seems to be lacking a layer of polish—the menu UI feels very last gen, the Mass Effect style conversation wheel appears inconsistently throughout dialogue, and many of the non-combat animations feel a bit stilted—but I wouldn’t call it bad. It’s a fun game with a lot going for it, which is why it’s a shame that it’s being released now, and not in the summer or late spring.

The two games I hear Reckoning get compared to most are Skyrim and Fable. The Skyrim comparison comes up because of the talent behind the game, and because of the rich lore and customization those same talented individuals have boasted about. I’m not sure about the story yet, but Skryim crushes Reckoning in terms of UI with its elegantly designed and intuitive menu system. Reckoning’s menus are clunky and a chore to navigate, they lack the streamlined fluid presentation Bethesda brought to the table with Skyrim. Skryim is also a little more open, and less structured. If that’s a plus for you, then the slightly-more-focused Reckoning might feel stifling.

Then there’s Fable. Reckoning has a similar cartoonish art style, but I think they take it a step past Fable. Just look at the environments and animals, they’re all heavily stylized, and I think the game looks great—it’s not as derivative as some people say it is. The action-oriented combat is similar to Fable as well, but again, Reckoning wins the comparison. Fable’s one-note combat doesn’t hold up to Reckoning’s deeper, skill-based action.

As for the story, that remains to be seen. Reckoning’s got a heavy amount of lore—the game makes the fantasy mistake of dumping a dozen different gibberish names on you within the first five minutes—but I didn’t get much of a sense for the actual main-line story. I’m not even close to finishing Skyrim, but I’ve seen a lot of really cool narrative stuff there, so if Reckoning is going to compete, it needs to step it up. I’ve never cared for the stories in Fable games—couldn’t even tell you what the first one was about. I hate the way your hero has zero input, but can, for some “humorous” reason, fart on command. So in the story department, Reckoning already beats Fable.

And that’s the problem. Reckoning stacks up favorably against the Fable series, especially the polarizing Fable 3. But it’s not looking so hot next to Skyrim, and it’s way closer to the release of Skyrim than the last Fable game. I feel like the reception of Reckoning would have worked better if it was Fable 3 that came out back in November and not Skyrim. People would be saying stuff like, “this is what we wanted from Fable 3”, or “It’s like Fable, but better.” Instead they’re talking about how it’s like Skyrim, but worse, except for the combat, which is kind of cool. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I know there’s business stuff going on in the background and you can’t just move release dates around, but still…bad timing.

I’m interested in Reckoning, but with so much of Skyrim still unplayed, and Mass Effect 3 just a month or so away, I doubt I’ll be playing it any time soon (it comes out next week). This would have been a great game to release in late spring or early summer. Far enough away from Skyrim and Mass Effect, or any big game in the genre, at a time where gamers might not be suffering from RPG fatigue.

Here’s hoping it does better than expected.

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You Win Microsoft

I was hoping the title would have read "I win", but that's not the case. It all started with Saints Row 3. I picked it up after Christmas with part of an Amazon gift card. When it got here I popped it in and started installing it, as I do with any game I know I'm going to play a lot. Two minutes into the install process I see this:

I doubted my new disc was scratched, but I thought there might be a chance because it was shipped to me from the land of Amazon. I tried the install a couple more times, and the error persisted. So I tried playing the game without an install, but it froze within the first 10 minutes, every time. Bummer. I wrote Amazon about the bad disc and they promptly sent a replacement. The next game had the same problem. Uh oh. That meant the problem was my Xbox.

This is where I had take a deep breath and quell the boiling rage inside me. This is my fourth Xbox. The first one died within a month back in 2006 (I was able to swap it out for a new one at GameStop), the next three all red ringed, and were replaced by Microsoft under their extended warranty. This one isn't covered by the warranty. Which means I could either send it to Microsoft for $100 or buy a new one. With the next Xbox likely a year or two away, I could go without one until then, but then I wouldn't be able to review 360 games. I'm lucky enough to make money off my game systems, but that requires me having them. Actually buying another system isn't what bothers me. I just don't want to reward Microsoft with more money for the poor build quality.

And so I turned to YouTube. I searched for my problem and found a few suggested fixes--they all involved taking my system apart. My console is out of warranty now and I'm definitely not paying Microsoft to "fix" it and send me another broken refurb, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

All it took was my Xbox, some screwdrivers and YouTube.

Removing the cover was the toughest part. Those little clips in the back were hard to wiggle free.

I took the interior cover off and the disc drive popped out with little effort.

I carefully unscrewed the disc drive casing...

And cleaned the laser and got rid of all the dust inside the system. Then I put the system back together, which was super easy, and hooked it up again. I started the install on Saints Row and waited.

Success! The game installed. I took apart an Xbox and fixed it! I'm the most amazing person in the world! Hooray!

And then the game froze. Noooooooo! From there I tried a few other YouTube and Microsoft suggestions--changing hard drives (I had an old 20GB in a drawer), changing position, clearing cache--but nothing worked. I hoped this would be a story of triumph, a satisfying DIY fix. Nope.

Later today, I got a text from someone interested in buying the TV stand I listed on craigslist. They just paid for my new Xbox. You win Microsoft.

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Batman and the B word

A week or so after Batman Arkaham City was released the Internet started buzzing about the use of “bitch” in the game. There was this piece on Kotaku, saying the game has a “bitch fixation”. And then there was this one by the always entertaining FilmCritHulk, which called the game “super duper sexist”. The guys at Giant Bomb mentioned it in one of their podcasts, and if you google it, you’ll find an absurd number of message board posts scattered across a variety of sites complaining about it.

Now that I’ve played a few hours of Batman, I can confirm that, yes, the word “bitch” pops up a lot. Would I have noticed it if it wasn’t for the articles I read prior to playing? I’m not sure, but I think I probably would. So far every female character that has shown up has been called a bitch by someone--be it a major villain like Two Face, or just some random thug on the street. It’s off putting, but I’m not sure it’s sexist. I think it’s lazy.

Maybe it’s because of Christopher Nolan’s stellar films, but people seem to like the dark, edgy and brooding version of Batman. Developer Rocksteady has cooked up a dark and edgy version of the hero that’s unique to its games, although you could question whether he’s truly unique, or just a unique amalgamation of other versions of the hero.

For example: The character of Batman, his gadgets, and the overall tone feel like they were pulled from the semi-realistic world of the Nolan films. Architecturally, the city looks like a spin on the Tim Burton-designed Gotham from the first two Batman movies in the late 80s/early 90s. The voice actors for Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn also voiced those characters in the beloved mid-90s Batman cartoon. The list of villains is deep, featuring cameos from bad guys only true comic book nerds would know. And the plot is split into obvious arcs, like a multi-issue comic story, filled with melodrama and cool fight scenes.

So mix all that together and what do you get? Something quite silly actually. The Nolan films work so well because they don’t really feel like superhero movies. You could replace Batman with a rogue cop in the Dark Knight and it would still work as an interesting crime drama. You know how Nolan made Two Face work (besides casting the likable Aaron Eckhart)? He never called him Two Face. When you mix in over-the-top villains, with literal (and punny) names like The Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy, it’s hard to maintain that realism.

But this is a video game about Batman. People don’t want strict realism; they want to punch The Penguin in his face! So how do you maintain Nolan’s tone when you’ve got campy villains skipping all over the place? Cursing. Lots of “T for Teen” cursing. The ESRB says you’re allowed to get away with mild cursing with a T rated game; you can drop just about everything but the F-bomb. The T rating doesn’t allow a ton of gore, so it’s perfect for Batman’s no-kill policy too. So now you have a campy comic book world, but it’s still edgy because Batman says “damn”, the villains say “ass” and every female character is a bitch.

But that backfired. The cursing just feels out of place, and the overuse of bitch made a lot of people uncomfortable, and some very angry. I don’t think the writers had some sexist agenda, I just think they did a lazy job capturing that dark and edgy tone they were hoping for. Go back and watch the Dark Knight, you can count the number of curse words on one hand. The language plays a small part in setting the tone. There are so many other things—the dark blueish hue, the off-screen implied violence, the excellent casting and acting—that contribute to tone.

I know it can’t be easy to work with a license like Batman. As a character he’s gone from grim psychosis to ludicrous shark punching and back. How do you please those that prefer him dark and edgy and those that like his goofier villains? I think Rocksteady found a great balance in their first game, Arkham Asylum, but they lost it with the sequel. They expanded everything—the map, the gadgets, the number of villains, the side missions—and then tried to reign in the cartoonish “this is clearly a video game” feeling by peppering the dialog with PG-13 language. And it would have worked, but they went too far. In other words, the characters didn’t need to curse that much. In fact, I think if they cursed less, chose their words, it would have had more of an impact on tone.

I wrote a book about superheroes (still looking for an agent…sigh) with some mild cursing. I made sure to use the words only when it was necessary and only if it fit the characters. There is one F word in the entire 300 plus page book, and when it comes, it packs a punch (that was my intention). I’m trying to imply that my way is the right way, just saying that bad language, like all the tools in your storytelling toolbox, should be used in moderation when crafting a tale. Rocksteady overcompensated, and the result is a forced, inconsistent tone.

You ever been around a young kid when he discovers an inappropriate word? Something like “butt” or “fart”? When his parents aren’t around he’ll say it like crazy, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s an inappropriate word, saying it is exhilarating, it makes him feel like a grown up. At first it’s funny to see the kid enamored with his new dirty word, but eventually, it gets annoying. That’s what Batman: Arkham City is like with bitch, uttering the word every chance it gets because it thinks saying it will make it look hip and edgy. It’s funny at first, then off-putting, and then just dumb. If you thought about skipping Batman because you thought it was sexist, don’t, it’s not. It’s just a little lazy.

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Course Correcting Assassin's Creed

I think most fans of Assassin’s Creed were rightfully nervous when Ubisoft announced just months after the stellar second installment in 2009 that the series would become a yearly franchise. We waited two years between the first and second game, and the improvements were vast, how could they do the same in a year? 2010’s AC: Brotherhood turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In just 12 months Ubisoft managed to flesh out the gameplay, refine some existing features, and add a unique, and genuinely fun multiplayer component.

After such a successful turnaround on Brotherhood, I was more than happy to purchase Revelations, the 2011 game, on day one. It’s definitely a great game, and if you like Assassin’s Creed, you’ll enjoy it, but it doesn’t move the series forward much. What it does do is offer further refinement of the core mechanics, and some glimpses at interesting gameplay and story possibilities for the franchise. Also if you liked the multiplayer, it’s even better here.

With Revelations, the AC franchise has reached a fork in the road. One direction leads to further innovation and exciting new gameplay elements. The other direction leads to the death of the franchise through stagnation and over saturation. Here’s what I think Ubisoft should do more of to stay on the right path, and what they should do less of to avoid the bargain bin.

More Customization

It’s fun to buy different armor, weapons and clothing for Ezio, but I’d like to see them take the customization a step further. You start Revelations with an overwhelming number of moves. You’ve got access to every item from the previous games, plus a slew of new bombs and a handful of new hook blade abilities. Revelations does a poor job of introducing you to the old gadgets, instead focusing on the new stuff. But I didn’t really need the new stuff. I didn’t use bombs much because I still had knives, and a gun, and a crossbow, and poison darts and Assassin’s to call. That’s a lot of stuff! I would love to see my play style rewarded and the inventory simplified through a Deus Ex-like leveling system. Instead of giving me everything, let me choose what I want. Then let me level up the things I like. Instead of just buying a bigger pouch for knives, make it a perk on a knife skill tree. Revelations gives you a zillion different options, but when the stuff introduced in AC 2 still works so well, there’s little incentive to branch out. I think a RPG-like leveling system, complete with perks and cool unlocks, would do just that.

More Linear Level Excursions

Brotherhood and Revelations featured some excellent one-off levels that had a clear linear path. The change of scenery and gameplay focus—you can’t just free run any old way to your objective—is refreshing and fun. You can tell the designers enjoy these levels too, as the interior linear levels in Revelations feature some of the series’ best technical and artistic design. I’d like to see more of these levels in future games. Maybe turn the main city into a hub, and have up to half of the missions take place elsewhere. That makes room for more environmental and platforming puzzles, which adds variety to the core gameplay loop.

More Consequential Platforming

The addition of the hook blade makes platforming in Revelations more participatory, and that’s a good thing. Sure, it still looks cool to see Ezio parkour all over ancient buildings, but after four games of sitting and holding up, it was getting old. The hook blade requires a button press in most platforming situations. Now chase sequences actually require timing and skill. I’d love to see them take this a step further. Add a slide or roll maneuver, or just find more ways to use the hook blade while free running to build momentum. I’d like to see games as whole break away from the whole autopilot thing. I want to play my games. Revelations lets you play more than any Assassins’ Creed game before it.

Less Tower Defense

You may have heard that Revelations features a tower defense minigame. It's not aggressively bad, but it's not fun either. Because it serves as a punishment for letting your notoriety get too high, it's not something you look forward to. Also, it totally breaks the fiction of the series. The past three games build the war between the assassins and templars as a secret war, happening in plain site. Huge armies of both factions battling in the middle of the street over a random tower is the opposite of secretive.

Less Convolution

I like the AC series because it fills that conspiracy theory hole that Lost left in my life. I like the mystery of the animus and first civilization, and the crazy secret war between two factions, but I think Ubisoft needs to reign it in a bit. I hope the next game contains some concrete answers that push the story and game world forward. This is a lucrative franchise for Ubisoft, so I doubt it will end with next year’s game. If they want to stay relevant, they can’t continue to rely on the same conflict. I suggest they start with a face to the Templar name. Each game has stretched the Templar name further, using it as a vague and generic term for bad guy. Give us a true villain, a bad guy leader, in the next game. Put Desmond up against something or someone other than “them”.

Less Face Changes

Revelations opens with a quick recap from the first two games. In it you see Desmond, wearing his white hoody. Then the game starts and you see Desmond in a black hoody…but the changes don’t stop at his clothing. For some reason, after three games, the developers decided to change Desmond’s character model. It’s immediately noticeable and off putting because they open with the old model in the recap. The new Desmond looks all puffy and swollen and dumb. They should change him back. The other character's faces have changed with age, and their changes look appropriate. There's no reason for Desmond looking like he got hit with an ugly stick. This one is nitpicky, I know, but it drove me crazy nonetheless. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

Revelations hints at some cool changes for the series, but it also hints at some potential missteps. The story in this new game offers little forward movement, choosing instead to focus on the back story of its main characters. It’s kind of a bummer that the cliffhanger in Brotherhood isn’t addressed, but at least the character development for Altair, Ezio and Desmond is top notch. The writing and gameplay works together to paint Ezio as a master assassin and mentor, and it’s neat to see how much he’s matured since the first game. I recommend watching AC: Embers, the cool animated short, when you finish Revelations if you want to check in on Ezio one last time. As for Altair and Desmond, we finally get to see why the former was so revered (because the first game certainly didn’t make him out to be an amazing guy) and why the latter is so special.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Revelations, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in to get the rest of the single player achievements—which has become a bit of a tradition for me with AC games. The turnaround since the last game was fast, but as Stephen Totilo pointed out in his excellent review, no one has done a game like Assassin’s Creed since the last Assassin’s Creed. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to come back every season for more. Let’s hope next year’s is even better.

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The Top Five Games For Your Xbox 360

Last week, at the request of a coworker, I wrote about the five games to get if you own a Playstation 3. This week I’m tackling the Xbox 360. A few things to note before we begin:

-This list is for non-gamers or casual “I buy one game a year” gamers. I’m going for quality as well accessibility. If you’re a gamer, try to remember how daunting a controller can be to someone that’s never held one. Also, remember that the general video game rule sets and boundaries that are near instinct for you are still foreign to those that don’t play games often.

-All games are exclusive to the platform, meaning you can only get them on 360. I caught some flak from the Giant Bomb forums for including Portal 2 on my last list, so I won’t be doing that again. Next week I’ll do a list for multiplatform titles.

-I did not include any Kinect games, because every Kinect game is exclusive, also I wanted to have a list that does not require additional hardware.

Now on to the list:

Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts

Boasting a fantastic art style and a playground-like atmosphere, Nuts and Bolts is a great way to ease into playing games on an Xbox 360. You play as a silly bear and bird duo in a series of events and mini-games that have you building crazy vehicles. You can use the blue prints the game provides, or build your own boat-plane-car-buggy using parts you find in the environment.

Complexity: This game is very approachable. There’s a fair bit of guidance early on, but also tons of room to experiment once you’re comfortable. There is a bit of self-referential humor and goofy callbacks to other games, but being in on those doesn’t exactly make the game better.

Also see: Viva Piñata

Forza 4

In my Playstation list I avoided listing Gran Turismo in the racing genre because of its complexity. Forza is the Xbox 360 equivalent, but I think it’s a little more accessible. There are a number of modes and guides you can turn on that ease you into the simulation racing experience. If you like fast cars, and you’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to drive them, Forza 4 is for you.

Complexity: As a simulation game, Forza can have a steep learning curve. I suggest turning on every assistive option the game has available. It’s a great way to get comfortable with the handling before stepping up to the pure racing experience.

Also see: Burnout Paradise

Halo: ODST

There are three Halo games on the 360 (soon to be four), but I think this one might be the most enjoyable for a newcomer. It’s got a self-contained story and an interesting structure that bounces between moody scenes of solitude and adrenaline pumping flashbacks. You’ll come across some fun characters and shoot at some crazy aliens.

Complexity: Halo: ODST is a first person shooter, a genre that some new gamers find disorienting at first. Bump down the difficulty and take it slow. Once you get the controls down it’s just a matter of putting your cursor over a bad guy and pulling the trigger.

Also see: Halo Reach

Alan Wake

If you like Stephen King books or eerie shows like Twin Peaks or The Twilight Zone, you’ll love Alan Wake. It stars a famous writer struggling to break free of his writer’s block. While on vacation with his wife in a sleepy mountain town he blacks out and comes to in the forest, where pages of his unwritten manuscript are scattered about. The pages cast Wake as the protagonist in his own story, often foreshadowing events soon to happen. This creepy, atmospheric game is broken into episodic chunks, complete with “previously on Alan Wake” bumpers—it’s perfect for casual, once a night play.

Complexity: The weird flashlight focused gunplay can be challenging at first, but the game doesn’t change much in terms of new mechanics, so once you have it down, you’re good to go. Just kick back and enjoy the crazy story.

Also see: Bioshock

Fable 2

The Fable series might be the most approachable RPGs around. You don’t have to worry about deep menus, complex leveling systems or long dialog segments. It’s easy to jump right in and start questing, casting spells and slashing goblins alongside your trusty dog. That’s not to say the game is a cakewalk either. There’s plenty of challenge for those that go digging, and there’s even a surprisingly fun real estate component. The cheeky British humor and vibrant art style make Fable an easy choice for an introduction to the RPG genre.

Complexity: The gameplay in Fable is simple and satisfying. The combat controls are tied to a couple of buttons—just mash away and cool stuff happens. You’ll rarely get lost or overwhelmed thanks to a gold sparkly “go this way” quest trail and your computer controlled canine companion.

Like last time, feel free to add any games you think I missed.

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Mass Effect 3: A Gateway Drug?

Late last week a very buggy and unfinished private beta for Mass Effect 3 slipped on to the Xbox marketplace (only to those in the Xbox dashboard preview). The beta was quickly pulled and disabled, but not before a few folks played it and posted the footage online. Some of the footage was quite unpolished – missing textures, jerky animations, poor lip syncing. I did notice that the camera angles are a little more cinematic during conversations, and the combat looks more exciting and impactful. So overall, the final game should be more Mass Effect, only better. Awesome!

But that wasn’t the surprise reveal from the leak. The most interesting thing to me was the mode select. Apparently Mass Effect 3 will offer three modes, presumably for three different gamers: Action Mode, Story Mode and RPG Mode. The demo I watched on YouTube (which has been removed, unfortunately) was played in action mode, a game type for those that prefer challenging combat, but don’t care for all that talking. In action mode, the game answers for you in conversation. That’s right, no conversation wheel. Initially I thought that was bananas, seeing as the first Mass Effect touted the conversation wheel as a revolution in RPGs, but the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense.

By minimizing the RPG elements and highlighting the stronger combat, Bioware can attract new people to the game and the genre. Sure, their story will be pre-determined and all their conversations will be on auto-pilot, but it gets them in door. Maybe after their first play through they’ll want to try a different mode; see how things could have turned out if they were in control of the conversations. That sounds like a good idea to me. More players, means more sales, which could mean more games in the Mass Effect universe.

As for the other modes, Story Mode keeps you in control of the conversations, but scales back the combat difficulty, and RPG Mode is basically what Mass Effect 1 and 2 were. It is worth nothing that Bioware said these modes are still being tweaked as the game is still months from release. I know the RPG purists out there scoffed at this news, viewing it as yet another sign of the impending downfall of Bioware and video games as we know them. Me? I’m optimistic. Bioware is a video game company, out to make money. They don’t owe me anything just because I bought some of their older games. I love the direction they're taking, especially as I get older and my time for deep games with steep learning curves diminishes.

Someone in the comments of this story on Kotaku pointed out that System Shock included a similar set up, allowing players to adjust specific parts of the game to suit them. No one seemed upset by that then, but I guess System Shock wasn’t touted as an RPG. I really like this idea though. Only two hours in to Uncharted 3 I bumped the difficulty down to easy. I was dying more than I wanted to on normal, and it was frustrating me. With a month-old baby, my play time is limited. I didn’t want to spend what time I had on retrying the same firefights. I play Uncharted games for the excellent story and mind blowing visuals and set pieces, not the average gunplay. Adjusting the difficulty let me move through the game and get what I wanted out of it. Some people love Mass Effect for the story, but hate the combat, why not make it easier for them to get what they want?

RPG purists should be happy about this news. Maybe after playing Mass Effect 3, new players might want to check out the first two games, and then from there, check out other, more complex RPGs, like The Witcher. Mass Effect 3 could be their RPG gateway drug. This might also entice newcomers to check out Bioware’s new game (don’t even get me started on how people freaked out over a super vague screenshot…the Internet bums me out sometimes). Bioware is seeding the soil with Mass Effect 3, and I hope—for them and for everyone that likes action RPGs—that it yields a bountiful harvest.

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It's Time to Kill Collectibles

Congrats, you've collected 13 of 4,563 pieces!

I think it’s time for the game industry to rethink collectibles. They’re breaking games, specifically games with a heavy focus on narrative. There are three types of collectibles from what I can tell, and I don’t think we need any of them.

Superfluous Trinkets

Take a game like Uncharted (2 or 3, it doesn’t matter), a game that marries story and gameplay so seamlessly it’s almost like a playable action movie. Why are there collectible trinkets in Uncharted? What’s the point? When the camera swoops in behind Drake, clearly urging me to press forward, but then I break away from the main path to check that dark corner over there (which is almost always empty), it breaks the flow of the game. Make up your minds developers! Do you want me to barrel through this bombastic story, or do you want me to inch forward as I scour the level geometry for shiny things?

I know, I know, you don’t have to collect things in Uncharted. And I don’t. The older I get, the less time I have to play games. I’ve all but given up on achievements, and I never cared about trophies. I want to experience what a game has to offer, not go on a scavenger hunt. I don’t have time for that. So I skip these things in Uncharted, save them for that third of fourth play through I know deep down I’ll never do. Uncharted is a good, and recent, example of superfluous collectibles—they’re annoying, and can mess with the pace, but not necessary. What really glazes my donuts is the required collectibles.

Required Collectibles

They’re what drove my wife away from Enslaved. Sometimes she likes to watch me play games, and she was really digging the story and characters in Enslaved. But the little red orbs ended her interest. As Monkey, you have to collect red orbs to upgrade your abilities. Now you don’t need to get every orb (though there is an achievement for that), but the more the merrier. Who doesn’t want a fully upgraded cyber staff thingy? The need for the best equipment to handle the increasingly stronger enemies pushed me to deviate from the main path to pick up orbs.

"Ugh, can't you just upgrade stuff without the orbs?"

After a particularly emotional and well-animated cut scene, instead of moving forward, I back tracked across a section of the level to grab some orbs I saw in the distance. Brooke threw her arms up in disgust. “Ugh! I just want to see what happens next! Why do video games put those things there? Do you have to get those? It’s so stupid,” she said. Leave it to my non-gaming wife to point out the absurdity of some of gaming’s classic trappings; she usually does this just by saying, “Oh, video games.”

From that moment on I decided to skip the red orbs that were out of the way, and I found that I still had more than enough points to power up my character and complete the game. So what was the point? If they were going to give me enough in the main path, why put hidden ones out of view of the limited camera angles? Why make me chase after stuff that breaks the flow of the story I’m sure they worked hard to create?

Story Collectibles

The final type of collectible borders on cliché these days. The whole, “Dear Diary, I’m dying!” thing is getting old. Who, in their last moments of life, would decide to make an audio recording? I don’t even know how to access the audio recording app on my phone. But apparently, in the worlds our games take place in, everyone always has a dedicated voice record on them. They must not be expensive though, because people seem to leave the everywhere. While audio recordings are ridiculous, they’re not as bad as the hidden documents that flesh out crucial bits of the story. I’m fine with ancillary details being squirreled away in some hard to find collectible, but come on developers, don’t hide relevant and important story information.

Gears 3 uses collectibles to share agricultural information...cool?

Resistance 3 is guilty of this, so is Gears of War 3. I don’t want to scan the environment for shiny things because it destroys the pace of the moody story, but one of those collectibles I happened upon revealed an important story tidbit, so now I want to find them all… but looking for them ruins the greater story progression. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At least in Uncharted I can skip the collectibles and still know everything I need to know about the world, characters and plot.

I think some of this is a result of being too close to the fiction. There’s often a huge amount of back story created during the development process for narrative-focused games. Everything needs a reason for being the way it is, and so the developers create a series bible, or master document with all the world details. Some of the information is relevant, some of it isn’t. The relevant stuff, the things we need to understand and enjoy the main story, should be put in front of the player on the main path. Reward players that go looking with neat background tidbits, don’t punish players with an incomplete story because they don’t feel like pixel hunting through your levels.

Doing It Right

There are some games where collectibles are okay. Crack Down, for example, makes collecting orbs a crucial part of game progression. It also makes grabbing them fun, thanks to the crazy super powers your character possesses. But Crack Down doesn’t focus on story; in fact its story is paper thin, almost non-existent. Infamous 2, on the other hand, has a decent story, and there are collectibles all over the place in that game. Like Crack Down, going after them is actually fun, and they have an impact on the gameplay. Also, because they are literally everywhere, you never feel like you’re going out of your way to pick them up. In other words, they aren’t disruptive to the story or pace. It’s probably worth noting that both of those games are open world games. Collectibles are a little more tolerable in that genre (Rockstar pushed the limit by asking you to pick flowers in Red Dead Redemption though).

"These things are everywhere, it's so convenient!"

Of course, we could always just do away with collectibles. The developers at Valve are masters of the age old good storytelling practice of “show, don’t tell.” The Portal games and the Half-Life series don’t have story collectibles, because they don’t need them. Every environment oozes atmosphere. You don’t need a secret hidden email to tell you about the back story or characters, you just pick up on it naturally from the excellent writing and design. That is, of course, much harder to do than it looks. Need proof? Play through one of those games with the developer commentary on. They made very deliberate design and story decisions so that the player understands the world, their objective, and how to progress. It’s inspiring stuff.

So why can’t we have more of that? Why are we still picking up stuff in our story-focused games? What are all those macho gun-toting bald video game protagonists doing with the trinkets they pick up? I find it hard to believe that Marcus Fenix has a little shelf at home with neat things he’s found on the battlefield.

"Look at all this cool stuff I found."

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The Top Five Games For Your Playstation 3

I was eating lunch with some friends at work and we started talking about video games. The coworkers I was eating with are both sports nuts, probably as passionate about them as I am about video games. One of them (we’ll call him Schmandrew) said he owned a PS3 just for the yearly sports titles and the built in Blu Ray player. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a geek, it was my duty to scoff. So Schmandrew asked me what I’d recommend as the top five games to play on his system. Specifically, he asked if I’d put it in a blog post. Here it is: The top five games to play on your Playstation 3 (Note: These are PS3 exclusive games. As in, only available on this system. I’ll make a different list for excellent multiplatform games).

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

The Uncharted series started as a modern riff on Indiana Jones, but after three entries, Uncharted has eclipsed Indy as the new template for archeological adventure. The games star treasure hunter Nathan Drake, a guy that can’t seem to stay away from trouble. The way the action packed story is seamlessly married with excellent gameplay makes it feel as if you’re playing a summer blockbuster movie. Praised as one of the best games of 2009, Uncharted 2 is perfectly paced, looks gorgeous, and it’s a blast to play. There are action games, and there’s Uncharted 2—a must play if you own a PS3.

Complexity: The controls are fairly intuitive. You jump, you shoot, you take cover when others are shooting at you. I’d recommend the easiest difficulty setting for those new to shooting dudes in video games. Familiarity with the first game is not necessary.

Also see: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (available 11/1/11)

Portal 2

Portal 2 is a puzzle game unlike any anything else, unless you played the first Portal, which isn’t required but still highly recommended (also, the first one is only three-ish hours long). You play as Chell, a test subject trapped in an Aperture Science testing facility. To escape, you’ll need to use a portal gun to solve tricky mind bending puzzles, all while being berated by a malevolent testing robot. I think it is one of the funniest games of all time, featuring excellent vocal performances from Stephen Merchant, JK Simmons and Ellen McLain. (side note: Portal 2 is not really a PS3 exclusive, but the PS3 version is the one to buy. If you purchase it new, it comes with a free copy of the game for PC. The game runs well on most computers, and the saves are in the cloud, so you can stop on your PS3, and pick up on your laptop!)

Complexity: Portal is a first person game, which can be disorienting to newcomers, but the game does a good job of easing you into it. The puzzles are expertly constructed. They’re just difficult enough to cause you to scratch your head, but never so much that you want to give up. Few games leave you feeling like a genius just for beating them.

Also see: Portal (available in The Orange Box for PS3)

Heavy Rain

I didn’t particularly like everything about Heavy Rain (partly because my copy was a dud that included a game breaking bug), but it’s definitely a unique experience worth checking out if you own a PS3. This isn’t a game in the traditional sense; it’s more like a playable crime drama. You control multiple people--a troubled father, a private investigator, an FBI agent and more--all out to catch the Origami Killer. Their stories intertwine and collide based on the decisions you make. Everyone will have a slightly different Heavy Rain experience. Dark and brooding, Heavy Rain has fantastic atmosphere and a one-of-a-kind presentation.

Complexity: It might look intimidating, but this game is super easy to control. Simple button presses and large prompts make it easy to guide the characters through the story.

Also see: LA Noire

LittleBigPlanet 2

Everyone, regardless of video game familiarity, has likely seen Mario in action at some point in their lives. LittleBigPlanet 2 is a modern platformer with classic roots in the Mario-era of games. You’ll move from left to right jumping over enemies and solving light puzzles. LittleBigPlanet 2 has a wonderful arts and crafts aesthetic and some of the most creative level design I’ve ever seen. With a charming story and endearing design, LittleBigPlanet 2 is as fun to look at as it is to play.

Complexity: This one is pretty simple, although I’ve seen the floaty controls frustrate a few non-gamers. My advice is to make sure you always mash the jump button hard. If you want to dig deeper there’s an endless number of levels online, made using the games super deep (and super complex) level creator.

Also see: LittleBigPlanet (not required playing, but still fun)

MotorStorm Apocalypse

The big boy in exclusive PS3 racing is Gran Turismo 5, but I think MotorStorm is more approachable. The loose arcade controls will have you slipping and tumbling through tracks that deform and change each lap. It’s a visually stunning game that offers a good sense of speed and a nice variety of vehicles. If the world ended, and people decided to compete in dangerous multi-vehicle races, it would probably be a lot like Motorstorm Apocalypse.

Complexity: The racing genre is split into two categories: arcade and simulation. This is an arcade game, meaning the handling is unrealistic and often floaty. Simulation games, like Gran Turismo 5, aim to recreate the feel of actually driving real world cars. If you’ve never played a racing video game before, MotorStorm is a great intro to the genre.

Also see: Gran Turismo 5

There you go. If you only ever play five games on your Playstation 3, you’ll have a great time with these ones. Next time I’ll tackle the five games to play on your Xbox 360, followed by another entry detailing five games available for both systems. Now go, play some games!

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Playing with Pinnacle and Dragon Age 2

Earlier this year I got Dragon Age: Origins in from Gamefly on my 360. I played it for about three hours, and then sent it back. It wasn’t bad, but it was easy to tell that something wasn’t right. It just felt like a PC game. So I resolved to hold off on playing it until I could upgrade my PC. A few months later, my PC was ready to go, and I played Dragon Age: Origins the way it was meant to be played. It was a much better experience on the PC. I didn’t have that weird almost spiritual connection some PC gamers had with it (on the scale of Bioware RPGs I’ve played it’s at the bottom—Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, KOTOR, Dragon Age: Origins), but I still had a good time with it.

This weekend the divisive sequel, Dragon Age 2, was going for a song on EA’s Origin service. Less than 10 bucks! I scooped it up and took it for a test drive Friday night. I played an hour or so of it, but it didn’t take long to realize something wasn’t right. It felt like a console game. Now I understand what so many die hard PC gamers were angry about. This game feels like it was designed for a controller, not a keyboard and mouse. Luckily, I have Pinnacle.

Pinnacle Game Profiler is the most intuitive and powerful key mapping software I’ve ever used, and I’ve used a lot of them. It’s packed with awesome features, while still being dead simple to use. It took some tweaking, but I eventually got a great profile set up for Dragon Age 2. I can do everything I need to do and more. Pinnacle has a shift feature that lets you map a crazy number of commands to a single controller. All my abilities and spells, plus a good number of hot keys are all triggered with quick button presses. I started playing as a mage, and targeting some spells with the right stick took some getting used to, but then I switched to a warrior (I played DA:O as a mage anyway), and I’m having more fun. I just tap the face buttons to use abilities, just like the console version, only I have more slots thanks to the shift feature.

As for the game itself, I really like it. Other than the obvious mishandling of the controls, I feel like Dragon Age 2 is better in every way. It looks better both technically and stylistically than its bland predecessor, the combat is faster and more satisfying, and the menus are better designed and more intuitive. I also love that I don’t have to spend hours outfitting all my companions. I know that’s a huge point of contention for many PC gamers, but I always felt like it was a colossal waste of time in the first game. If I only have an hour to play (and now, with a newborn, it’s often less), I don’t want to spend 45 minutes of that hour looking at armor stats in a menu.

I’m only a couple hours in, so I don’t know how the story flows, but I’m optimistic. I like the idea of the story being about a family and not so much about saving the world. Also, having a fully voiced main character is great. I know some reviewers and gamers were disappointed with the story, but so far I’ve ended up liking all the changes that most PC gamers hated.

I feel like I got a great deal on Dragon Age 2, thanks to Pinnacle and Origin. I get the controls and lean-back playability of a console game, with the better graphics and mods of a PC game (I currently have a few cosmetic mods installed). The internet is filled with nerd rage for Bioware, but for the most part, I feel like they make games perfect for me. Deep enough to have a decent learning curve, but still accessible for short play sessions. It’s going to take me quite some time to move through this one—especially with Uncharted 3 scheduled to arrive in my mailbox next week—but I’m glad I got it. Having a capable gaming PC is a great way to stock up on super affordable rainy day games.

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