Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review // Dark Void

Every time Dark Void does something right, something legitimately awesome that other games don't deliver, it smacks right into a wall moments later. How could a game with a premise as awesome as "Gears of War with a jetpack" possibly fail?

What Worked

The Jetpack: Nothing is more satisfying than hurtling toward your objective, completely ignoring a dozen on-foot enemies ready for a fight, then hurtling right past them again after you've completed that objective. It feels dangerous to fly that fast, especially indoors, but that's what makes it so damn thrilling. The way your character flails in such a visceral, out of control way as you fly makes it look dangerous, too. Once you're comfortable using the jetpack, you can pull off some very cool stuff that would make playing as Marcus Fenix again feel incredibly boring.

Vertical Cover: The first time you realize that you need to take cover going down is pretty amazing. The first time you can't remember which way is up until an enemy's body unceremoniously tumbles past you is mesmerizing. If vertical cover sounds like a gimmick, it's because it is, but it's a really fun gimmick. It doesn't revolutionize the genre, nor does it need to. When the vertical cover is combined with dynamically shifting environments, it really does add a much appreciated new dimension to Dark Void's combat.

Art Direction: I really like the way this game looks. The alien structures and technology, the UFOs, the jetpack... It all has a great sense of style. The alien environments have such an interesting look to them that it's actually a shame that the rest of the Void just fluctuates between generic jungle and desert environments. Even the box art has an extremely appealing flair to it. There are a lot of iconic designs at work here, and that goes a long way toward making Dark Void special.

The Music: When it was announced that the guy who scores Battlestar Gallactica would be composing the soundtrack to Dark Void, I couldn't possibly be more indifferent. I don't watch that show, so I just took it on good faith that it was probably a smart decision. And boy, was it. Dark Void's distinctive soundtrack just pounds away while you soar through the sky, mixing traditional tribal and sci-fi music elements to ramp up the action. I can't wait for it to be released on February 9.

What Didn't

Will Grey: Nolan North is a great voice actor, but he's been in so many games recently, playing the exact same role in all of them, that his presence is actually a negative. It's tiring, and it's not even his fault. It's the fault of lazy developers that would rather just have Nathan Drake with a jetpack than create an original character. And that's exactly what Will is: Nathan Drake with a jetpack. Even if you ignore that issue, Will Grey is still not a compelling character. For instance, his relationship with Ava, his ex-girlfriend, feels so transparently shoehorned into the story that it drags everything down.

The Story: The completely awkward, out-of-place romance with Ava isn't the only issue with Dark Void's story. My biggest gripe is that it's paced way too quickly. Normally, I like fast-paced narratives, but here it simply feels like you're being rushed along for no reason. If you've played the demo, you know what I mean. Every cut scene is like this, with zero reflection given to how crazy Will's situation really is. When Will first encounters the tribal people living in the Void, they're already waiting to turn him away without explanation. One of them is already waiting to help Will out, despite having no reason to do so. Your first meeting with Nikola Tesla is so quick and without impact that I was left wondering why he was even in the game at all.

You can also expect plenty of bland dialogue to ensure that you won't get attached to any of the characters, so by the time the story takes its requisite, blatantly The Matrix-inspired directional shift, you'll already have gotten over any naive notions that this is a story worth caring about.

Aerial Battles: You know how aerial battles usually go in games. You spend half your time turning to face off-screen enemies that are busy turning to face you, and the other half getting shot at. It's no different in Dark Void. Maybe it's because I just don't like dogfighting in games without "Rogue Squadron" somewhere in the title, but the aerial battles were the least fun aspect of the entire game for me. Of course, it doesn't help that most of the aerial battles are also tied to protecting structures and are too lengthy. I found that the quickest way to power through these missions was to just man an anti-aircraft gun and ignore flight altogether. For a game about being a guy with a jetpack, that's not good.

Technical Issues: Every time I stopped playing Dark Void, it was because I literally had to. An infinite loading screen here, an outright crash there. But even when everything was "working," it wasn't always working. The frame rate, for example, is incredibly unreliable. Sometimes it would run smooth; other times it would get noticeably choppy. Throw in the occasional glitch and you've got a game that feels rushed, despite having been delayed.

Why I Want A Sequel

That Jetpack Is Awesome: Just the promise of using a jetpack in a third-person shooter is reason enough to warrant some Dark Void sequels. It's an awesome concept that can be even better once the lessons of this game are applied: Fix the aerial battles by adding lock-on targeting and homing missiles to alleviate the need to spin around so much. Add air melee attacks to make Will himself a weapon. Refine the jetpack controls to make it easier to fly without smashing into walls so much. Force me to fly faster, better, and more dangerously. Hell, chase me out of a tunnel with an explosion. Go crazy.

Make Me Dizzy: It's ironic that a guy with a mild fear of heights like me would be demanding an even more pronounced sense of vertigo, yet here we are. Games don't seem to trigger that fear for me, so I want a Dark Void sequel that makes me queasy during vertical cover sections. Also, keep the vertical cover interesting with more sections like the shipwreck and the dynamically shifting towers of cover and fewer sections of plain, static ledges. Vertical cover was already pretty cool, but I couldn't help but feel like they had barely tapped its potential.

I Want Better Combat: Dark Void's combat left something to be desired, with little enemy variety, lackluster weapon upgrades, and melee that felt infinitely more useful than bullets. Even with fully upgraded weapons, it's often still quicker to simply fly over to an enemy and punch him than actually shoot him, and that's a problem. I want a sequel to make the weapons feel a lot more powerful and a lot more creative. When you've got a free pass to design any insane weapon you want, use it.

Those Aliens Have Style: I vastly preferred the alien structures to the much less imaginative human ones, so I'd be very interested in seeing a sequel that takes the fight away from the boring, Earth-like environments in the Void and into a more fully realized alien region brimming with advanced technology. The Void is an unknown, alternate dimension, so anything is possible.

Dark Void has a very exciting premise, but it gets too bogged down with technical and design problems, an unsatisfying story, and forgettable characters. It's a decent rental, but nothing more. Hopefully it gets a sequel to fully realize that premise.

Dark Void / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review // Bayonetta

In a lot of ways, Bayonetta is one of the worst games I've played in a long, long time, which is why it's a shame that its combat is good enough that it's hard to write it off completely. But out of all the things I hate about Bayonetta — the bad level design, the incomprehensible story, the terrible acting — I think I hate Bayonetta herself the most.

I Hate You, Bayonetta.

I don't care about the gender politics behind Bayonetta's strut or her ridiculous outfit. I don't care whether she represents a misogynistic or feminist outlook. I don't even care if her disproportionate body and hypersexual mannerisms are comparable to ultramacho characters like Marcus Fenix. I just think she's really, really fucking annoying.

My problems with Bayonetta don't stem with whether I can deal with her overt sexuality; my problems stem from her overt sexuality adversely affecting my gameplay experience. For instance, dodging four times in a row will cause Bayonetta to exaggerate the fourth and pose for the camera, which you can do nothing to skip. Liberal dodging in Bayonetta isn't just encouraged, it's the foundation of the game's combat. So when Bayonetta decides it's more prudent to stop and wink at the camera than respond to my commands, she's leaving herself open to attack and pissing me off at the same time.

Even worse are her awful taunts, the most embarrassing of which is one where Bayonetta sits on the ground, spreads her legs wide and says, "Come on!" This taunt perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong with Bayonetta. The idea of a seductive, strong female character that literally uses her sexuality as a weapon doesn't bother me in the slightest, but the execution here couldn't be worse. Bayonetta doesn't come off as sexy or seductive in the least. She's disgusting. She's repulsive. She's downright abhorrent.

When Bayonetta is tearing off her clothes in the heat of battle or spreading her legs in front of a five-year old girl (yes, you can do this), all she accomplishes is making me wholly embarrassed to be playing her game. When Bayonetta gets attacked by tentacles or poses in awkward crotch shot after awkward crotch shot, all she accomplishes is making me want to turn off her game and never return to it.

I Hate You, Bayonetta.

Even if Bayonetta wasn't the vile, nauseating character she is, the rest of the game is still bad enough that it ultimately wouldn't matter. Level design in Bayonetta alone was enough to leave me in a constant state of simultaneous boredom and frustration: Clumsy, patronizing puzzles usually amount to jarring halts in pacing and are never intellectually satisfying. Precision platforming sections rely on character control that simply wasn't built for such precision and are more irritating than fun. Attempts to break up the pace with driving and shoot 'em up sections are repetitive throwaways that last far too long to justify their existence.

The story that connects these levels together is, somehow, even more painful than the lacking level design. It's not bad enough that every single cut scene is dreadfully boring, seemingly endless, and features an overly complex, nonsensical plot driven by an abysmal script. No, what makes it that much harder to stomach is that it's quickly apparent that the game is actually proud of just how bad it is. The only consistent tone in the game is a sickening theme that the developers were impressed with themselves. With every uncomfortable, voyeuristic shot of Bayonetta's body, every gratuitous, excessive action scene, every drawn-out, poorly written exchange of dialogue comes an undeserved air of "man, we're awesome!"

The only aspect for which the game deserves even the slightest trace of a pat on the back is its combat. It's a fairly intuitive system that ditches the emphasis on rote memorization of combos that games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden thrive on, and it's definitely better for it. Like God of War, stringing almost any combination of button presses together will yield something pretty cool, which I definitely prefer to being forced to memorize combos to have a chance of success. The depth is there if you want it, but it's not required. As long as you've got good reflexes and can dodge at the right time to activate the slow-motion mode, you should be okay. That said, the fights where you can't activate that mode don't feel nearly as satisfying, and almost every boss fight in Bayonetta is pretty lackluster. Yeah, they're intricate, huge spectacles, but only a couple of them managed to be more fun than taking out grunt enemies.

No one would tolerate this game if the combat wasn't this good, but even Bayonetta's combat can't make up for how awful the rest of it is. I'm shocked and disappointed that it's been getting a free pass from gamers and critics alike. We deserve better.

Bayonetta / $59.99 / PS3, 360 [reviewed]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review // PixelJunk Shooter

If you're looking for the video game equivalent of a Porsche with a dent, PixelJunk Shooter is the game for you. Shooter is almost flawless, but the key word there is "almost." Every aspect of the game has some niggling imperfection associated with it that puts a slight blemish on a great experience. Let's run down everything to love about PixelJunk Shooter and the little flaws that hold it back.

The Least/Most Subtle Story Ever

What To Love: So you've been sent to this planet to go rescue some scientists and workers who bit off a little more than they could chew in trying to mine for resources. The game's story is given to you through some scrolling Star Wars text, then through speech bubbles from special survivors you save throughout the levels. It's not an especially creative way to deliver the story, but it works well in context. What's really cool about it is how subtle some details are.

For instance, in every level, you can't progress until you've accounted for all the survivors, regardless of whether you saved them or killed them. But to unlock more levels, you've got to find hidden diamonds throughout the levels. This progression structure alone had me dreaming up Alien scenarios of power-hungry corporations more concerned with profit than human life. It leaves a lot unexplained on the basis that using your imagination to fill in the blanks is more satisfying, and it totally is.

The Little Flaw: Unfortunately, that's also why it's so disappointing when it just spells everything out for you in plain text. The special survivors you collect will literally just tell you what's happening with the planet, what went wrong with the mining operation, and even lecture you with some of the least subtle political agenda I've ever seen. It's as if the designers were scared you wouldn't "get" the message and decided to beat you over the head with it to make sure.

Not Quite Modern Enough

What To Love: Considering that they came out within a week of each other, it's a little shocking how similar PixelJunk Shooter is to Gravity Crash, each taking the same basic concept and going in two completely different directions with it. While Gravity Crash can be a little polarizing in how old-school it is, Shooter is refreshingly modern: There's no pull of gravity on your ship, you don't need to worry about fuel, and you can crash into the walls as many times as you want with no penalty.

Combine all that with pitch-perfect movement controls and you've got a game that could've been really punishing and slow-paced but decided instead to just lighten up for the sake of quick, accessible fun. Good call.

The Little Flaw: The problem is that it's not quite modern enough. The game conditions you into thinking that the days of annoying one-hit deaths are over, then introduces enemies that can one-hit kill you. Maybe it's because it's so progressive in so many other ways, but dying from one hit in this game is really frustrating, especially near the end of the game and during boss battles.

And as much as I love the movement controls, Shooter's setup for actually shooting is puzzling at best. Both right shoulder buttons do the same fire commands, which would be fine if there weren't two fire commands. Tap R1/R2 to fire a regular missile or hold it down to fire homing missiles. I don't really get why the controls don't use R1 to fire a regular missile and R2 to fire homing missiles. Considering the amount of buttons a PS3 controller has, it doesn't make sense to use two buttons for three commands.

With such imprecise controls to fire homing missiles, you'd think they'd at least be really useful, but I assure you, they're not. Their tendency to fly right past the intended enemy and into a survivor makes the fact that you have to take damage to use them feel insulting.

A Sense of Discovery

What To Love: Other than explaining the controls and your general goal for each level in an optional "How To Play" menu, the game never really tells you what you're supposed to be doing. In most games, that would be a huge problem, but it's actually really cool here. Instead of being explicitly told at the start of a level what happens when water meets magma or magma meets gas, you find out on your own. You'll come face-to-face with some new gameplay element you've never encountered before and approach with complete uncertainty of what will happen next.

The Little Flaw: Occasionally, that totally backfires because the solution isn't something you'd ever guess on your own. I spent half an hour trying and retrying a level because I couldn't figure out what the hell I was supposed to do next until I finally gave in and looked online for the answer. Turns out that my ship just had an ability that was never disclosed to me, the pilot, and was necessary to progress.

Yet at the same time, there were several instances where I was just having fun exploring a level or messing with the different elements when a survivor would get impatient and yell the solution to a puzzle I hadn't even attempted yet.

Tutorial Complete, Roll Credits

What To Love: PixelJunk Monsters eventually became so difficult that the number of possible solutions for each successive level dwindled until it became all about trial-and-error. PixelJunk Eden lost its charm the further you got into each garden, replacing the joys of exploration with enough frustration that I would return to the simpler, early levels and lament what the game would later become. PixelJunk Shooter doesn't have these problems.

The levels never get so challenging that they start to impede on how fun it is just to mess around in each level. They keep introducing new stuff until the very end, so you're constantly getting new things to play with, and the puzzles don't get so overly complex that they become a chore to solve. It feels like a conscious decision was made somewhere along the line not to screw up a good thing by designing puzzles for the extremely patient or people with open, and I appreciate that.

The Little Flaw: It also feels like half the game is missing. It keeps introducing you to newer and crazier elements, new kinds of puzzles, and new ways to solve those puzzles, then stops abruptly. There's so many possibilities of cool puzzles that would require you to really think outside the box that never happen. For instance, there are four suits in the game that change your ship's abilities, yet you never use more than one per level. It constantly feels like you're being set up to start switching suits on the fly or use them against bosses or go through earlier levels with them to unlock new areas or something crazy like that, and then it ends. On a cliffhanger, no less.

But even with that dent, it's still a Porsche. All those little flaws I mentioned are just that: Little flaws. Taken as a whole, PixelJunk Shooter is great game with a clean, attractive art style, a good, unique soundtrack, and a very interesting mix of puzzles and shooting.

PixelJunk Shooter / $9.99 / PS3

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Go ahead and light that third candle, Jim.

what is delicious is now three years old. Three years. Man, it does not feel like it's been that long. Looking back on my old stuff is really eerie; it's crazy to think how much this blog has changed since then. It's gone through a few major redesigns and dozens of little refinements. Thinking back to what the site looked like back then compared to how it looks now is absolutely insane. You wouldn't even believe it's the same site. But you know what? It kind of isn't.

In every conceivable way, the what is delicious you see before you is a vast improvement over the original, even down to the URL you type into the address bar. What used to be a default Blogger layout has organically evolved over time, one element after another. The sidebar got icons to make it easy to find past work, the hideous original header image was swapped out for my custom one, the whole blog turned black and got wider. Over time, it became less and less recognizable from where it all started.

Even my writing style has changed so much that it's hard to place an old article next to a recent one without cringing. Yep, this is how you started off, I have to remind myself. Thank god you've gotten better at this since then. I've learned how to break up the walls of text, better edit my own work, and just keep myself in check in general. There's still plenty of room to improve, but I'm happy with the progress I've made so far.

Hopefully in another three years, I'll be looking back at the stuff I'm writing now with the same reaction of "man, I used to suck."

Friday, January 8, 2010

what is delicious HD

Like the last time I redesigned the site, I only intended to make one small change, accidentally messed with something else that gave me an idea, and hours later, here we are:



Also, I've been double-spacing the text recently so it's easier to read, and I spent at least an hour or two previewing how the site would look in various other fonts, but decided it's probably best left in Verdana. You know your life is exciting when you find yourself researching the differences between geometric and humanist sans-serif fonts, right?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Game of the Year 2009 // Batman: Arkham Asylum

I don't think it's possible to truly convey how obsessed I was with this game. If I wasn't playing it, I was thinking about it. I skipped meals; I lost sleep. I remember starting a session as the sun was just starting to set and ending it because I noticed the sun was just starting to rise. My roommates would loudly discuss whether to give me an intervention or just kick me out and replace me with someone less nerdy.

So what is it that made this game so addictive?

It Had The Best Combat

Punching dudes in the face in Arkham Asylum feels as polished and satisfying as jumping in Super Mario Bros. or shooting in Modern Warfare. It's in the way Batman leaps to your next target to keep combat flowing seamlessly and quickly. It's how responsive the whole system is, allowing you to counter incoming hits even if you're mid-combo. It's how those combos are based around reflexes and intuition rather than rote memorization. It's how Batman's boot sounds as it smashes into somebody's teeth.

Even though Batman can't shoot electricity out of his hands or turn his arm into a tentacle blade or even kill two guys at once with hidden blades, he still ended up feeling like 2009's most powerful character.

It Reinvented Stealth

I'm usually a bigger fan of the idea of stealth in games rather than the execution. There's something supremely rewarding about taking everybody out without being seen, but most stealth games are just so boring or make you feel so weak or are so shoddily put together that it's usually not even worth it. But Batman does stealth in a way that other games don't: You are the aggressor. You are the predator. You aren't hiding because you have to; you're hiding because it scares your enemies that they don't know where you are.

I'm completely confident in saying that Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best stealth game ever made.

It Created The Best World

Every year, we get one virtual world that stands head and shoulders above the rest, embedding so much life and history into the very walls themselves that they become a fully realized character. In 2007, it was BioShock's Rapture; in 2008, it was Dead Space's USG Ishimura. Now it's Arkham Asylum.

It's a world that feels like it existed before you got there. It feels like Arkham Asylum. You can see Wayne Enterprises off in the distance. There are old passageways only Batman knows about. There are patient interviews and biographies littered everywhere. There's evidence of almost every villain having been there at some point. My reaction upon stumbling across Calendar Man's cell? Pure joy.

Not even Renaissance Italy felt this real, and that place was real.

It Was An Awesome Batman Story

Oh, man. There were so many great moments in this game. Remember when Batman tells Bane he's going to break him this time? Or when you find out that Batman made a second Batcave? Or the party that Joker throws for Batman? Or the Scarecrow stuff? Dude, the Scarecrow stuff.

To top it all off, the stars aligned with the voice cast to remind us how amazing the Kevin Conroy vs. Mark Hamill matchup is. And boy, is it.

It Was The Most Fun

I played it, then I played it again. I perfected all the challenges, then created new challenges for myself. I solved all the riddles and found all the Riddler trophies. I played the extra Joker content and the free DLC maps. I earned that Platinum Trophy. I have seen and done everything that game has to offer, and yet, I still want to go back and play it all over again.

No other game put a stupid grin on my face like Batman: Arkham Asylum did, and that's why it's my Game of the Year for 2009.