Friday, December 30, 2011

Review // Batman: Arkham City

You know, the title of "best Batman game ever" used to be difficult to get.

That's before Rocksteady Studios took the crown by force two years ago with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game I enjoyed quite a bit, let's say. Before that, had you asked me what the best Batman game is, I would've said, "Oh, Batman Returns for the SNES, easily." That game came out in 1993. It took 16 years for a better Batman game to be made, and not for lack of trying, either. No, there have just been a lot of garbage Batman games over the years — until Arkham Asylum changed all that.

And now Rocksteady has done it again with Batman: Arkham City, making it look totally effortless in the process.

The first thing Rocksteady set about doing with Arkham City is expanding the scope of everything. The world is bigger, the stakes are higher, and while Batman is far more capable than he was in Asylum, his enemies are, too. Arkham City is a much more dangerous place than the asylum ever was, and it feels that way.

There have been some changes to Gotham City in the 18 months since the events of the first game. Quincy Sharp, the old warden of Arkham Asylum, was elected mayor, and with him came the rise of Hugo Strange, a diabolical genius who knows Batman's true identity and who orchestrated the creation of Arkham City, a massive prison carved from Gotham where criminals are allowed to do whatever they want as long as they stay within the walls.

While Batman was (understandably) not too thrilled about the idea, I couldn't have been happier. Soaring over buildings, perching on gargoyles, listening to the city to get my next objective — it's the true Batman experience, executed flawlessly.

The mechanics of controlling Batman have a purity that makes the simple act of getting from A to B a treat all on its own. You're quickly introduced to a mechanic that allows you to grapple to buildings and accelerate past them to launch yourself into the air again, similar to the grappling hook-parachute combo from Just Cause 2 that made that game such a joy, too. There's a real skill to traversal here, something the game encourages with side missions that have you flying through rings or rushing across the city.

It's so easy to find yourself in a state of nirvana in this game, whether gliding over the streets of Arkham or punching dudes in the face, where the controller melts away, you cease thinking and begin to simply... react. You'll need to be able to reliably get into that mindset if you want to do well at the combat, which I'll maintain is, hands-down, the best melee combat system ever created.

It's incredibly fluid and animated beautifully, looking more like a choreographed fight than a video game. It encourages the player to be very deliberate and spatially aware by tapping into the same addictive part of your brain that Call of Duty does with its Kill Streaks. For every five-hit combo, you'll earn the ability to use a special move, ranging from a brutal, instant takedown to a total disarm, where Batman grabs an enemy's weapon and destroys it — it's constant incentive to keep your combo going.

And like in Asylum, while there may only be one attack button, Batman still has an entire arsenal at his disposal. The way Rocksteady has used almost every single button on the controller to allow players to have quick access to each of Batman's gadgets in the middle of a hectic fight without interrupting the flow or being overly complicated is nothing short of astounding, especially given how many more gadgets he has now.

Of these, my favorite is probably the disruptor gadget, which is only really useful during stealth sections. It allows you to remotely disable an enemy's gun without him knowing. Then you can drop down in front of him and watch him freak out after his gun fails.

What I love most about the stealth in Rocksteady's Batman games is the slightly sadistic tinge to it all. Batman's main weapon against his enemies isn't a gadget or a fighting technique; it's fear. You're not just supposed to be taking out guys wantonly; you're supposed to be turning them against one another, playing on their paranoia, becoming a true terror of the night. It became a game unto itself for me to set up excessively intricate systems to inspire that fear, like starting off by quickly stringing up two enemies with Inverted Takedowns on opposite ends of the room so the remaining guys would have to run through the middle, where I'd detonate a fire extinguisher, creating a smokescreen that I'd hop down into and silently take out one of the thugs as they all panic, then grapple away before it clears, and so on. I became a monster in Arkham City, and loved every minute of it.

I think it speaks volumes about the quality of Batman: Arkham City that the worst part of the game is the downloadable (and therefore, optional) Catwoman content. There are four Catwoman missions if you've downloaded it, the first of which acts as a prologue to the rest of the game, but a bad one — there's no context to what's going on or why, is incredibly short and insubstantial to the overall plot, and most importantly, replaces the actual introduction (which is fantastic) as the opening to the game.

The rest of the missions feel sandwiched into the story, breaking the otherwise excellent pacing, and would've been better left relegated to the main menu to be played later so that rather than interrupting Batman's story, they would've been complementing it. Oh, also, she's not much fun to play as, either, thanks to a severely limited toolset and the inability to fly. So not only does it take her longer to get places, but she can't do much once she's actually there. That certainly doesn't help. Honestly, I'd recommend just waiting to download the Catwoman content until after you've finished the game.

Ignore the Catwoman missions, though, and Batman: Arkham City has an awesome story, filled with smart writing and outstanding performances from the entire cast. It's engaging and dramatic and silly in all the ways you'd want a Batman story to be, but it's darker than you might expect, too. While a lot of the story might feel like an excuse to have you facing off against each of Batman's villains, I'd argue that that's exactly what's great about it: You turn all of Batman's greatest enemies loose in a small city-sized prison and I'd imagine he's going to have a pretty busy night. It continually ramps up and gets crazier and crazier until it finally reaches its spectacular conclusion.

And then—because why not?—Catwoman gets a mediocre epilogue.

Beyond the story, there's so much stuff to do. The game is packed with side missions, collectables, riddles, and challenge rooms, all of which are really satisfying to complete. The riddles, in particular, are gratifying to get, often requiring you to solve a fiendish puzzle first. Something about hearing the Riddler chime in after you've solved an especially difficult one to accuse you of cheating is consistently amusing. The challenge rooms return from Asylum, pitting you in combat or stealth-focused arenas with specific goals to meet, but are now accompanied by "campaigns," which are just series of three challenge rooms strung together with "modifiers" you have to activate. These can be positive or negative, like offering Batman regenerating health, making his enemies more aggressive, disabling Batman's gadgets, etc. You have to use all of them before the campaign is over and you can only use up to three at a time, so it takes some real strategy to decide which are best to use for which challenge.

In every respect, Batman: Arkham City absolutely raises the bar for other games, with the best melee combat and stealth action to date, a gorgeous, well-realized world, stellar voice acting and animation, and a tremendous value. I can't give enough praise to this terrific game.

Batman: Arkham City / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review // Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

I can't remember the last time such a high-profile game had the odds stacked against it to this degree.

Infinity Ward, still reeling from a late backlash against Modern Warfare 2, was torn apart and rebuilt following the sudden termination of its founders. Sledgehammer Games, a newly formed studio that was supposed to be giving a new spin to the Call of Duty franchise, was called in to help Infinity Ward deliver Modern Warfare 3 on time. And through it all, players turned their noses and sneered at what they considered to be a soulless shell of a company, declaring the franchise dead and running to the open arms of Electronic Arts, only too happy to position Battlefield 3 as the anti-Call of Duty.

But it was still made, and now, after spending dozens of hours with it, I can confidently say that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is pretty fucking rad, and that you should buy it.

Say what you want about how incredulous the stories of the Modern Warfare games have been or how many plot holes they have; I'm still willing to decree them the best, most engaging stories in any first-person shooter this side of BioShock for the mere virtue that I can remember the names of the characters. And not only that, but I actually care about them, too. Going into Modern Warfare 3, I was genuinely interested in how things were going to play out for Soap and Price. I'd call that a triumph.

Compare that to Killzone 3, where I wanted nothing more than Sev and Rico's heads on a pike by the end. I can't tell you anything about Nathan Hale from the Resistance series beyond the fact that he's as bald and bland as every other modern character out there, and unless I were to cheat and take a quick trip to Wikipedia, I couldn't give you a single character's name from Halo: Reach's Noble Team. Honestly, I'm impressed enough with myself that I even remembered that they were called "Noble Team."

Mind you, Modern Warfare 3's borderline nonsensical depiction of a near-future World War III isn't exactly high art, but it's easy to get absorbed into and provides a great catalyst to put you in some insane scenarios. And really, in a game more concerned with keeping the act of shooting dudes in the face fun and intense for five hours than weaving an intricate and thoughtful treatise on the futility of war and the horrors of what men are capable of doing to each other, that's totally fine.

To Infinity Ward's credit, shooting dudes in the face for five hours was a blast. There's a feel to the guns in the Modern Warfare franchise that nobody else has ever quite nailed — they feel substantial without the polarizing sway of artificial weight so prevalent in games like Killzone; they feel powerful without the crutch of excessive (and distracting) recoil in games like Battlefield. Maybe it's because enemies go down in just a shot or two, or because the reticle changes to let you know you've hit someone, or that distinct sound of the bullet impacting an enemy. Whatever it is, the gunplay in Modern Warfare 3 remains the best in the business.

But what really keeps it interesting are the absurd scenarios you're put in. Whether it's barreling past populated subway terminals while in a truck chasing a train full of terrorists or engaging in a breathtaking zero-gravity gunfight in a free-falling plane, you're almost always doing something completely crazy in this game. In fact, it's the middle act of the game, where the set pieces let up for a little while for standard boots-on-the-ground firefights, that I enjoyed the least. It was still fun, but I much preferred the pulse-pounding intensity of the scripted moments.

There are definitely some logical inconsistencies in the game's story that might bug some people, like why the Russian president is launching full-scale attacks on Europe at the same time that he's trying to negotiate peace, or how Russia even has the resources to attack all of Europe at once, but none of that really detracted from the story for me. No, I was more bothered by things like why Frost, one of the playable characters, was suspiciously absent from one of the final missions and was never seen again, offering zero conclusion to his storyline.

Overall, though, the game's story should be commended for eschewing the increasingly modern trend of leaving the ending open for potential sequels. There's a real sense of finality here when the credits begin to roll, and it's refreshing.

But the moment the credits are done rolling, you get dumped right into the returning Spec Ops mode, so get a friend ready. If you played Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2, you know what to expect — missions designed for two players, often involving multiple pathways through a level or requiring each player to take on a vastly different role, usually amounting to one player covering the other player's back from the safety of an AC-130 gunship, for example, or a series of remote turrets. It's nothing new, but it remains a fantastic mode that simultaneously encourages cooperation and trash talk.

What impressed me more was the other side of Spec Ops, the new Survival mode, where the game just throws increasingly difficult waves at you until you die. I didn't really think a wave-based survival mode in Call of Duty would be all that fun, but it pretty quickly surpassed the Missions mode for me. When I wasn't playing it, I was thinking up new strategies and reminiscing over how wild some of the later waves get, like when the game decides to drop three Juggernauts on you at once, or dogs with C4 strapped to them, or three Juggernauts with riot shields and helicopter support.

It's more fun with two people, but I actually found myself making it further on my own. I didn't have to worry about whether my partner was carrying his weight, or taking cover when he was injured so I wouldn't have to come revive him, or executing our strategies properly. I could just... play. But hey, that's probably my fault for picking my roommate to be my partner.

Of course, that just leaves the competitive multiplayer. There have been some really smart changes to the tried-and-true Call of Duty formula, like the new Kill Confirmed mode that operates like Team Deathmatch, except that kills only count if you pick up dog tags from fallen enemies; you can even outright deny enemy kills if you pick up your teammates' tags before the other team can. It's a really clever mode with layers of strategy, like realizing you can use tags as bait, or that any tags you see could be a trap.

Another smart change is the new Kill Streak system, so if you're a more casual player who isn't confident in his ability to rack up a dozen kills in a single life, you can switch to, say, the Support option, where your kill count persists even if you die. You'll just be getting more defensive rewards, like body armor for your team, rather than the assortment of missiles and gunships that someone using the traditional Assault option gets.

There are other great tweaks here and there, but if you've played a Call of Duty game since the first Modern Warfare, this is going to feel very familiar. If you've played all of them since then, it might feel too familiar. But if you're someone like me who only plays the Modern Warfare games and avoids the off-year Treyarch filler, Modern Warfare 3 is going to feel like coming home.

I love that matches rarely exceed 10 minutes, so I can play a round or two to kill time and feel totally fulfilled. I love how customizable everything is, so that I can design a class to suit my play style that's wholly unlike anything my friends are using. I love that it's not as woefully unbalanced as Modern Warfare 2 was, where the double shotgun superhumans broke what should've been an awesome game. The maps are a little less memorable this time around, but there are still some real gems.

Unless you've been playing a Call of Duty game every year and now you're just completely burnt out, you should pick up Modern Warfare 3. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, has some truly stunning moments in the campaign, and offers multiplayer that's more addictive than ever before.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


Friday, November 25, 2011

Review // Assassin's Creed: Revelations

What if the sequel to the best, most ambitious game of last year came out and was surprisingly unambitious, content to merely replicate everything its predecessor did without really pushing anything forward? Would you be okay with that? Because your answer will determine whether or not Assassin's Creed: Revelations is for you.

Personally, I think you should just skip it. If you've never played an Assassin's Creed game before, this is easily the worst starting point, a confusing mess of convoluted plot details and intricate gameplay systems. And if you have been keeping up with Desmond and the rest of the Assassins, you'd be better off giving yourself a break from the series and coming back next year, eager for Assassin's Creed III.

That's the problem with making Assassin's Creed a yearly franchise — it's just not a style of game that can support that kind of release schedule. If you've stood on a rooftop above a guard and pressed the button to jump down and assassinate him once, you've done it a thousand times. You need an extended break between games for that to feel fresh again because it's exactly the same every single time you do it.

The difference between Assassin's Creed and a game like Call of Duty that's also on a yearly cycle is that, in Call of Duty, you're doing the same style of actions, but you're not doing the exact same actions. In Modern Warfare 3, sure, there's a guided stealth level, just like in previous Modern Warfare games, but at least it's a different guided stealth level.

In Revelations, however, you'll be doing many of the exact same actions you did in Brotherhood: you will buy shops to revitalize the city's economy; you will recruit Assassins and send them on missions throughout Europe; you will climb tall buildings and synchronize to reveal parts of the map; you will assassinate witnesses and bribe heralds to reduce your notoriety; you will hunt Templar captains and light the influential towers they once protected. You did all of those things in Brotherhood, and they have not changed in Revelations.

Without a doubt, that staleness is Revelations' biggest problem. There's just nothing that feels dramatically new here. Ezio has a hookblade now, and yeah, it's pretty cool, but it's not enough. Brotherhood introduced Assassin recruits, an innovative multiplayer mode, a faster combat system, challenge rooms, and so much more. It felt appreciably different from (and better than) Assassin's Creed II. Revelations, on the other hand, introduces the hookblade, a tower-defense minigame, bomb crafting, and... that's it, really.

How significant are those additions? Not very. The hookblade is fun, letting you climb faster, use ziplines and roll over enemies in your way, but it's definitely not a game-changer. The tower-defense minigame is an annoying chore that pops up every once in a while on your map, nagging you to recapture a Templar tower you took over earlier. It's mindless, requiring you to spend "morale points" to place different units of Assassins and barricades on a road that waves of Templars will march down. Fail and the Templars regain control over that tower. I found the easier solution to be to ignore contested towers altogether and continue playing the game as though they didn't exist at all.

And bomb crafting? I did it once, for the tutorial, then never did it again. The idea here is that you can use ingredients you find around the world to craft custom bombs that complement your play style, but given the number of tools Ezio already has at his disposal — hidden blades, Assassin recruits, poison darts, a gun, a crossbow, parachutes, throwing knives, courtesans, mercenaries, coins, etc. — I never once felt like I needed to go craft a custom bomb to tackle a situation.

In fact, what bombs made me realize is what the series needs most: focus.

Think back to the first Assassin's Creed and ignore the godawful mission structure for a moment. What tools did Altaïr have at his disposal? His speed, his sword, his hidden blade, his dagger and his throwing knives. That was it. There was real incentive to be calculating and cunning — Altaïr couldn't get caught and slaughter 15 guards in the blink of an eye like Ezio can. And once you'd assassinated your main target, your only option became to run. You were forced to work within those limitations, creating some of the most exhilarating moments in the series.

Revelations has none of that. As Altaïr, you'd often get backed into a corner, forced to claw your way out like a frightened, wild animal. You felt real tension and danger. Ezio, on the other hand, is always calm. He's so capable that it's practically impossible to get cornered, but even if you do, you definitely won't feel scared — you'll be too busy running through a list of all the easy ways for Ezio to take control of the situation.

Ezio is a walking cloud of death. He points his fingers at men and they die. He has aged, yes, but he has aged too gracefully. Revelations had the opportunity to bring back a little of the fear that drove players through the first game by introducing limitations on Ezio's abilities, but he is as spry and agile as ever, if not more so. There is nothing he can't do, and that's boring.

But Revelations' problems don't stop there. As a game that promised answers, claiming that "the intrigue of secrets has passed," it completely fails.

The premise here is that Ezio is on the hunt for five keys in Constantinople that will open an underground library in Masyaf to uncover Altaïr's final secrets. If that sounds lackluster to you, it's because it is. By the very nature of that premise, nothing truly exciting can happen until the final moments of the game. And sure enough, nothing truly exciting happens until the final moments of the game, but even then, if you've already beaten Assassin's Creed II, you already know the grand revelation.

What Revelations does do, though, is some hardcore retconning of Altaïr's story. Not only has Ubisoft completely changed his face, voice and personality from the first game, but his story doesn't really match up with what was supposed to happen to him after the first game, either. As well, it introduces a pretty serious plot hole near the beginning of the game that never gets resolved.

Instead of providing real answers, Revelations introduces baffling questions of its own.

Through and through, Revelations just feels like there was less passion behind it, less vision. It barely inches the franchise's story along, despite promising to take leaps forward. The presentation is noticeably worse than past games, filled with ugly faces, glitches and an inconsistent frame rate. And with the exception of the hookblade, the few new gameplay additions fall flat.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations is not a bad game. Pretty much anything great about Brotherhood is still great here. But if you've already played Brotherhood, Revelations has nothing new to offer. Instead, take a year off and come back fresh for Assassin's Creed III.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review // Shadows of the Damned

You're sitting at a bar, frustrated and burnt out, six drinks down with no signs of slowing. You signal the bartender for another. He hesitates.

"You all right, buddy?"

"I'll be better once this glass is full."

Behind you, the door bursts open. Through the fog and the blinding light steps a midnight woman with a brimstone fauxhawk and a Billy Idol sneer. Her shredded leather pants are falling apart at the seams, and she's wearing a studded jacket left casually unzipped with nothing underneath, illuminating ashen skin. Her eyes are fallen morning stars; her jaded gaze sweeps lazily through the bar. She doesn't see you.

But she does sit next to you.

This is what it feels like to play through the stellar, rock and roll opening of Shadows of the Damned, the latest peyote-infused trip from Suda51, the auteur behind Killer7, and Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series. That opening was a breath of fresh air for me, a much-needed reminder that crazy Japanese games still exist in today's increasingly cautious market.

During that opening, I was introduced to "Garcia-fucking-Hotspur," a Mexican demon hunter on a road movie through hell to rescue his lady love, and Johnson, his easily excitable British sidekick (who's just a floating skull, by the way). I shot the lord of demons through Garcia's apartment window and into a portal to the underworld then dove in after him. I rode a chopper down a deserted highway and into a cobblestone hell. It's almost overwhelming how immediately cool this game is.

Here's the thing: that initial impression wears off quickly.

I like to divide Shadows up by the defining personalities behind it: Suda51 holds up his end of the bargain; the world and story of Shadows is often hilarious, sometimes embarrassing and silly, but always wildly imaginative. Shinji Mikami, however, does not; there's not enough variety in the action, boiling the game down to a more boring version of Resident Evil 4 with a "darkness" mechanic that gets old quick but stays until the end. At least you can move and shoot, finally.

Even Akira Yamaoka, who composed the music in the game, does a fantastic job. If Mikami's work represents the hands of the game, and Suda51's the eyes and mouth, Yamaoka's is the pulsating heart. He never misses a beat, complementing every moment in the game with the perfect track. Haunting, frantic, beautiful, jovial — he nails it all.

Shadows really is just a Resident Evil 4 redux. Garcia is a walking tank, directly analogous to Leon Kennedy, that you control from the same over-the-shoulder perspective with the same loose aiming. You can dodge and melee just as awkwardly and the only substantial difference between Hotspur and Kennedy is Hotspur's ability to move and shoot simultaneously.

To be fair, that is a pretty big difference. Leon's inability to pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time made that game unplayable for me. Dead Space perfected what that kind of character should feel like, so Garcia merely splits the difference — functional, but not especially satisfying.

There are a few nuances here and there, like if you headshot an enemy with your first bullet, the camera follows that bullet as it flies forth and explodes the enemy's head. It's a cool throwback to Killer7 that had me carefully lining up my shots to earn that little bonus.

The only other difference is the darkness mechanic. You see, demons like the darkness, but Garcia can't survive for very long in it, so prepare to be ambushed often and immersed in the stuff. You'll have to find and shoot a mounted, chewing goat head with a "light shot" to illuminate the area before you start to lose health. It's a cool visual effect, but it's a pretty flat mechanic that's only creatively used in a handful of spots throughout the game.

If it seems like I'm down on Shadows so far, it's because of the insanely high pedigree associated with it. While I've never been a huge fan of Mikami's games, he seemed like the perfect counterpoint to Suda51, a man whose games are typically fascinating and abstract, but not exactly "fun" in the traditional sense. Killer7, for instance, was impossibly dense, so rife with political intrigue and mystery that, even six years later, I'm still wrapping my head around what exactly happened in that game. That its action was pretty tedious almost didn't even matter.

I'd imagine that designing a game like Killer7 is an exhausting experience, simultaneously cathartic and draining. I'd imagine that because Suda51's games post-Killer7, including Shadows, have all been light, silly affairs, not nearly as rawly ambitious as that game was, a trend he seems keen to continue next with Lollipop Chainsaw, a game where an 18-year old cheerleader in a miniskirt fights zombies in a '50s-throwback world.

And as much as I liked Suda51's delightfully immature humor in Shadows, full of dick jokes and penetration puns, I still wish he had taken himself a little more seriously and crafted an experience as unhinged as Killer7, or at least kept the game funny throughout; as with Brütal Legend, any serious moment that attempts emotional resonance is undercut by the protagonist having done something stupid five minutes prior, like Garcia firing a four-foot long revolver from his crotch, yelling, "Taste my Big Boner!" with every shot.

Yes, that totally happens. No, it's not very funny.

It's because of stuff like that that Shadows isn't the kind of game that benefits from long play sessions: You'll find yourself getting bored, despite the game's attempt to have something new and wild and embarrassing happen every 30 minutes. You'll find Steve Blum's distinctive voice (he's in everything) painfully grating, an all-too generic choice for a character who's anything but. You'll grow increasingly weary of the samey level design, full of arbitrary switches and keys and rudimentary darkness puzzles, as you absentmindedly sail through a sea of clones you tired of five hours ago.

And that's the game's biggest problem: It's way better in the moment than it is in retrospect. As I played, it was light but somewhat repetitive fun, consistently charming, and refreshingly bizarre. But the deeper I got in, the less fun I was having and the more I'd put off playing it. I'd remember how much I hated parts like "taste my Big Boner!" or the infuriating, instant-death chase sequences near the end, and I'd start to dread going back. And that's not at all what I expected.

So is Shadows of the Damned Suda51's best work? Absolutely not. Is it a great game? No, it isn't. But is it worth playing at least once? Yeah, it totally is. It's just bizarre enough to warrant a rental, but nothing more.

Shadows of the Damned / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Xbox Live Indie Games Is Broken, And Here's How Microsoft Can Fix It

When was the last time you downloaded something from Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games service? Have you ever? Do you even know where it's located in the Dashboard? Is this the first time you've thought about the service since it launched in February 2008?

I wouldn't blame you for being unaware of the Indie Games platform. It's buried so deep in the Xbox 360's Dashboard you'd need a GPS to find it. It's Microsoft's ugly stepchild, the one they keep in the basement when company is over. It's that thick, dusty encyclopedia on their bookshelf that they love to brag about, but never actually read.

So for those of you understandably unfamiliar with Xbox Live Indie Games, it's a way for someone like you or me to develop and sell our own Xbox 360 games using Microsoft's free XNA toolkit, with minimal certification. Just pay $100/year to join the "Creator's Club" and you're set.

Sounds like it should be a bastion of raw creativity, right? Well, not exactly.

"[Xbox Live Indie Games] has a bad reputation because there's no sort of quality control," Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat told me over Skype. "Just a lot of shitty games for a dollar. People go, 'Well, I can safely ignore this entire channel because 90% of the games are just not good.'"

That lack of quality control is actually one of the biggest draws of the service for developers. Pay the fee, make your game, put it up, done. And in three years, there have been almost 2000 games released for the service. For comparison, there are about 400 games currently available on Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft's premier download service that launched with the Xbox 360 in 2005.

For consumers, that's a nightmare.

"It's turning into the [iOS] App Store," said Edmund McMillen, the other half of Team Meat, in the same interview. "All the top games are Minecraft clones. It's becoming a joke just like the App Store."

He's not wrong. Take a quick glance at the best-selling games on the service and you'll find two Minecraft clones, two massage applications (they rumble your controller), a voice changer, and a charming little title called Baby Maker Extreme where you fire a newborn baby from its mother's uterus and make it bounce as far as you can.

Those are some of the best-selling Indie Games of all-time.

Mind you, there are some high-quality games on the service. Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World, recently released on Steam, began life on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2010. Shortly after their Steam releases, developer Zeboyd Games announced on its blog that it had "already made more revenue in less than a week on Steam than we have in over a year and a half on the Xbox Live Indie Games service." Ouch.

I asked Robert Boyd, half of Zeboyd Games, whether he would consider PlayStation Network as an alternative to Indie Games: "Based on the huge success of our PC launch, we'll probably stick with the PC for the time being."

"I don't think anybody would be surprised by that," McMillen said of the disparity between Zeboyd's Steam and Indie Games sales, "because they weren't on Xbox Live Arcade. They were on Xbox Live Indie channel—"

"—which is promoted like absolute crap," finished Refenes.

I brought up the Summer Uprising program, a community-driven promotion designed "to promote Xbox Live Indie Games in the best light possible by showcasing the diversity, talent, and potential of the platform as a whole," according to its website.

"I had no idea it was up to the developers to make a Summer of Arcade-type situation and Microsoft basically doesn't do anything," said McMillen.

Summer Uprising, which will run from August 22 to September 2, is being organized by Dave Voyles and Kris Steele. They've already picked eight of a planned 10 games for release during the Uprising and are working hard to promote it with trailers, press releases and interviews.

"A lot of people look at the [Indie Games] platform as a joke, and a lot of it is," admitted Voyles in a Skype interview. "But there's a lot of talent, too. It's just not an intuitive marketplace."

Steele agreed, criticizing Microsoft's decision to have the Indie Games channel immediately dump players onto the list of newest games.

"Instead of gamers seeing the best we have to offer, or a selection of recent best," he said, "they see everything new, which isn't necessarily good. And when they find titles that aren't very good, they might assume that that's [all] we have to offer and they don't come back."

So then just sort it by user ratings, right? Wouldn't that solve that problem? Unfortunately, no. The rating system in Xbox Live Indie Games hasn't exactly been known for its purity in the past.

"All the top games are Minecraft clones. It's becoming a joke just like the App Store."
// Edmund McMillen

After several developers complained of being targeted for rating manipulation abuse, where some developers were asking fans to rate their own games highly and competing games poorly, Microsoft finally responded by changing the policy on how Indie Games could be rated so that "only users with Xbox LIVE Gold subscriptions will be allowed to rate content on the website."

However, it still doesn't require you to have actually played the game you're rating. Contrast that with PSN, where you can't rate any piece of content unless you have already downloaded it first.

So you're left with a platform flooded with bad games, completely ignored by Microsoft and the majority of Xbox 360 users, where the good games either can't sell or are unfairly rated by people who haven't even played them. It doesn't really make sense, does it?

I mean, Microsoft is offering something pretty unprecedented here: a chance for any gamer with a spark of inspiration to dip their toe into game development on a major gaming console. Neither Sony nor Nintendo offer that. Shouldn't Microsoft be singing their own praises every week, picking standout Indie Games from their community and saying, "This is what you can do on Xbox 360"? If nothing else, shouldn't Microsoft at least care about making extra money from Indie Games?

"Microsoft doesn't even care about money," McMillen countered. "They've got all the money. So they don't care about making money on anything. That doesn't matter. The only way Xbox Live Indie Games could be something they would get behind is if it was doing so many high numbers that they could get behind it. They don't need money. What they need is for people to say to their friends, 'Hey, Xbox Live is the biggest,' or, 'Hey, Xbox is the biggest because it's getting the most sales.' That's what matters. Sales numbers matter. They want to break previous records and they want to break other people's records."

Fair enough. But no Indie Game is going to break sales records unless somebody gets behind it and bellows from a mountaintop about why players should check it out. And that's where the Summer Uprising comes in.

When I spoke with Voyles and Steele, I could tell they "get it." These are guys that see potential in the Indie Games platform that even Microsoft can't, and they're not waiting around for Microsoft to finally recognize it, either.

"It's kind of like we're filling in Microsoft's role with the Uprising," Voyles said. He pointed to a recent post on Twitter by Epic Games' Vice President Mark Rein promoting an iOS game that uses Epic's Unreal Engine 3. "Why [Microsoft] wouldn't do that, I don't know."

Steele, who has published four games on the platform, said that the developers he's talked to have been requesting a more robust XNA toolkit from Microsoft that allows for Achievements, leaderboards and Kinect support to make their games more attractive to consumers. While there are obvious problems with allowing Achievements in user-created games, I was surprised to learn that leaderboards and Kinect support are still absent from the service. Steele thinks Windows Phone 7 might be to blame.

"Xbox Live Indie Games shares a lot of the same resources with Windows Phone 7, and that seems like it's more of a priority to Microsoft," he said, outlining some recent changes to XNA that seem more geared toward phone development.

While everyone I talked to had different theories why Microsoft hasn't thrown its weight behind Xbox Live Indie Games, they all pointed to Steam as the model for Microsoft to follow.

"It's hard to even talk about Steam," McMillen said. "There's nothing wrong with what they're doing. Everything's perfect. That's why things sell, because they have a little ad for even the most obscure indie game that goes up there."

But McMillen also makes a crucial distinction.

"The hardest part with Steam is actually getting your foot in the door," he said. "In order to get your foot in the door, you have to be legitimized in some way, shape or form." He goes back to Cthulhu Saves the World, saying that Zeboyd Games might not have gotten on Steam without proving themselves on Xbox Live Indie Games first. And sure enough, here's what Boyd told Armless Octopus in July:

To be honest, I don’t know that we could have even managed to convince Steam to distribute our games if we hadn’t been able to point at the positive reviews that the XBLIG version had gotten. [...] I think XBLIG is a great choice for new developers to gain experience and build a resume even if it might not be the best choice for actually making money.

"It's also important not to give anybody any false hope," McMillen said. "I'd say the majority of indie games that are out don't launch on Steam. Like VVVVVV. It came out months before, and [creator Terry Cavanagh] did it independently, and that's how he got on Steam."

Refenes agreed, saying that many indie developers are "expecting to do Castle Crashers numbers" with their first game.

McMillen added, "You're gonna have to go through those hoops in order to get to the places you want to get to regardless of any situation. If you're starting out and no one knows who you are, you're gonna have to pay your dues. And Xbox Live Indie Games is part of that."

One indie developer I talked to, Tristan Nishimoto, who recently released Rainbow Runner for Xbox Live Indie Games, completely understands.

"It sold about 500 in the first week," he told me in an email conversation. "I had absolutely no expectations, so I'm happy with how it's been selling." He said he doesn't plan to port Runner to Steam, but is aiming to launch his next game there.

"Xbox Live Indie Games is purposefully put up there for the 'in between,'" McMillen said. "They're pushing out of hobbyist and trying to push into making money for their game. It's a transitional area."

McMillen and Refenes made intriguing points about whether or not it should even be Microsoft's job to promote games on the service. Especially when you consider the difference in development costs between the XBLA games Microsoft does push and the Indie Games they don't, it almost seems unfair to expect Microsoft to do anything but make indie developers market their own titles.

Refenes explained, "They're giving developers a way to put stuff on a major console and they're doing a good job there and developers should see that as a gift, honestly."

"If you're starting out and no one knows who you are, you're gonna have to pay your dues. And Xbox Live Indie Games is part of that."
// Edmund McMillen

"I don't think that what they're doing is really wrong," McMillen said, "because they're not obligated to do anything. It's pretty cut and dry: 'You put your shit up here, and you get people to buy it.'"

Again, fair point. But if Microsoft wanted to get serious about Indie Games, how can they improve it?

"Promote it," McMillen said immediately. "But they're not going to."

"Well, it's two things," interjected Refenes. "They need to promote it, and they need to quality control it."

"Bam. There we go," McMillen agreed. "But that's the thing. They do have that already. It's called Xbox Live [Arcade]."

Voyles and Steele had a couple of their own suggestions to add.

"They really have to revamp the Dashboard," Voyles said. "So many things are hidden and convoluted... even the major titles."

Steele added, "There's also things they could do with the channel, like filtering the games within the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace so it's easier to find the quality titles."

With all that in mind, I contacted Microsoft for a response to the criticisms and to see what their plans are for the platform going forward. Here's what they had to say:

Xbox LIVE Indie Games is designed to put the power in the hands of the developers. Microsoft provides a marketplace, free development tools and a peer-review system that makes it easy and affordable for developers to launch their games on Xbox LIVE. Microsoft is the only console maker that provides this level of support to independent developers. However, it’s not a case of “if you build it, they will come.” Just like any other studio that makes games for Xbox, independent developers must put marketing efforts into their games in order for them to be successful. Although we can’t share exact numbers of downloads, more than 1,400 games have been published on Xbox LIVE Indie Games to date.

Microsoft values and supports the independent development community. We are consistently listening to feedback from developers and are taking it into consideration for future programs. Since the launch of Xbox LIVE Indie Games in 2008, Microsoft has made several updates to improve the service for independent developers based on their feedback. Although we don’t have any announcements to make at this time, Microsoft will continue to make the desires of the independent community a priority for future updates to XNA Game Studio and Xbox LIVE Indie Games.

It's clear from that statement that it's Microsoft's intent that indie developers market their own games, which, to be fair, is both a vital learning experience and part of "paying your dues" like McMillen mentioned. It's a completely unrestricted, laissez-faire market where Microsoft has taken a giant step back and said, "This is your space to do with what you will. Go crazy."

So is Xbox Live Indie Games broken, or is it merely a case of mismanaged expectations on the part of developers and consumers? Well, it's both.

Xbox Live Indie Games truly is, as Microsoft put it, "designed to put the power in the hands of the developers." You can make your game for next to nothing, with no creative restrictions, and publish it for the world to play. It's just up to you to get them to play it. On a base level, the service delivers everything it sets out to do. But could it be better? Of course.

The key to "fixing" Xbox Live Indie Games is to put more power into the hands of the players: Don't allow games to be rated by people who haven't even downloaded them. Make the channel easier to find and easier to sift through, giving players ways to filter games that actually matter. While Microsoft won't (and shouldn't) enforce quality control, they need to give the community the tools to do it themselves.

If the Summer Uprising proves anything, it's that Xbox Live Indie Games, for all its flaws, still has a strong and dedicated community behind it. Microsoft needs to recognize that and show their support.

They also need to put more power in the hands of developers by giving them leaderboard and Kinect support (which could also help with the drought of Kinect software). And finally, while Microsoft doesn't need to promote every game on the service, or even most of them, is it really so hard to tweet about a cool game every once in awhile? Tycho from Penny Arcade recently posted on Twitter about a game called Pixel Blocked, saying, "People, Pixel Blocked on XBL Indie Games is just fucking killing it. I want this on every device I own." He currently has 53,429 followers. Microsoft's Xbox Director of Programming, Larry Hryb, also known as "Major Nelson," currently has 292,999 followers. Use that.

So yeah, Microsoft could be doing more to realize the potential of that service, but they're still the only ones even trying, and for that, they should be applauded.

"I'll tell you this," McMillen said. "If Xbox Live Indie Games was around when I started, I'd think that was the fucking coolest shit in the world."


Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review // inFAMOUS 2

No game is perfect, right? There's always something that could've been done better, regardless of the game you're talking about, even if it's just a minor flaw. Sometimes it comes down to personal taste or play style, but you can almost always say, "Yeah, that part of the game wasn't so great."

A prime example is the first inFAMOUS. I absolutely loved it. I've played through it at least three times, gotten every trophy, and came stupidly close to buying a second copy once it became downloadable on PlayStation Network. You know. In case I ever want to play it and don't have the disc with me. Yeah.

But you know what? Parts of inFAMOUS were just not very good. I wrote pretty extensively on its flaws back in 2009. The characters were unlikable, the moral choices were clumsy, and the game in general was a little buggy. And yet I still opened my review with, "inFAMOUS is a game that does so many things right that the things it does wrong cease to matter." I stand by that statement now just as much as I did when I wrote it. That game was fun.

That said, I expected inFAMOUS 2 to be bad. Really bad, actually. Why?

Well, every time Sucker Punch announced something new about it, like Cole's revised character design, his replacement voice actor, the inclusion of zombies with giant lobster claws for arms as enemies, or how the two latest women in Cole's life — Nix and Kuo — would represent the new moral choice system, I got the distinct impression that they were systematically trying to ruin their own franchise. One of my most anticipated sequels ever had turned into one of my most dreaded.

So you might be surprised when I tell you that inFAMOUS 2 is one of the most perfect games I have ever played.

Here's what I think happened: After inFAMOUS, Sucker Punch sat down and listed every single thing that they didn't like about that game and every single thing that fans didn't like, dead set on fixing every last complaint. Their gruff protagonist Cole turned out to be more polarizing than they had anticipated, so they overreacted, throwing out his original design and starting from scratch. They designed a trendier Cole, one created solely to be more likable. Ironically, all that accomplished was angering the fans who liked Cole in the first game (or at least didn't mind him) and forced Sucker Punch to publicly eat crow when they finally changed him back.

The result, however, was totally worth it. inFAMOUS 2 is exactly, and I mean exactly, what I wanted out of a sequel to the first game. It opens with more than just a bang; the stellar intro wastes no time, practically reaching through the screen to punch you in the teeth. You see, like Cole, now a seasoned hero/villain, Sucker Punch returns beyond confident. inFAMOUS 2 swaggers through its explosive opening, Round 1 of the match fans have waited two years to play: Cole MacGrath vs. "The Beast."

And just like that, in no more than 10 minutes, they've got you hooked.

What follows is an intensely charged race to juice up Cole's powers before the Beast can catch up to him, something inFAMOUS 2 never lets you forget. It periodically reminds you precisely how many miles away the Beast is and how many more "Blast Cores" our boy needs to absorb before he's ready to dance with the Devil again. The pause screen is especially effective, happily volunteering a map of the East Coast and just how much of it the Beast has already obliterated on his trip down to New Marais to say hi. Especially later in the game as the gap closes and you really start to wonder whether or not Cole can power up in time, this framing device proves sheer brilliance.

Every time the game reminded me how far away the Beast was, I could practically feel the guys at Sucker Punch grinning. They knew they had me, and they just wanted to make sure I knew it, too. Yeah, Sucker Punch, I knew. Go ahead and grin. You earned it.

They earned it by taking a witheringly hard look at the first game and recognizing not just what needed to be changed, but what needed to stay the same. At first, playing as Cole feels familiar but fun, as pleasantly surprising as driving your first car again for the first time in years and realizing it's still as nimble as ever. By the end of that game, though, Cole is capable of things you wouldn't believe.

That's what makes inFAMOUS 2 — and its predecessor — so special. Playing as Cole is pure, even refreshing. He's not bound by realism the way so many modern video game characters are. There's a rhythm to controlling him, that sought-after quality that makes the controller melt away and lets you really inhabit the character. It's why it's just as satisfying to keep Cole skating along the power lines above rooftops without falling as it is to to launch an electrically charged tornado at a helicopter.

Something that defined my time with the first inFAMOUS was that "just one more" feeling. You know the one. "Just one more mission." "Just one more collectable." I was constantly making deals with myself; deals that were always broken. I felt like an addict, and loved it. inFAMOUS 2 made me relapse, hard. Even after I collected every last "Blast Shard" in the city, I was still clicking in the left stick to search for more. It was a habit I simply couldn't shake, and a testament to how exceptional the game really is.

And also like the first game, right after I finished my first playthrough as a hero, I immediately restarted to play again as a villain. It was a truly cathartic experience to finally unleash after exercising such unyielding restraint for so long. Don't mistake that as an admission that playing the boy scout is boring, though. The inFAMOUS games encourage roleplaying in a way few can, managing to reward you for staying in character and punish you for straying without being overly judgmental or at the cost of having a good time. Switching sides is fun, but staying within the boundaries of your chosen role can be even more so.

But "no game is perfect, right?" Right.

Regarding the first inFAMOUS, I wrote that "playing as evil was a breath of fresh air. But not as much as I thought it would be." Well, for as far as they've come, Sucker Punch still struggles to make playing as evil a compelling, or even coherent, experience. Cole indecisively paces through cutscenes like a dog being called by two different masters at once, and the narrative suffers for it. I understand Sucker Punch's desire to wrack the player's conscience with two equally weighty decisions, but their current system doesn't allow for it. The game's need to label your actions as "good" or "evil," with no logical reason to deviate from your current path, cripples the potential emotional weight of any choice they could throw at you. Not that they even bother trying to present you with anything as beautifully agonizing as choosing whether to save your girlfriend or a team of doctors like they did in the first game, though.

That said, the evil path is still infinitely more affecting here than it was in inFAMOUS, largely thanks to the powerful ending that only works because of Sucker Punch's newfound ability to make characters actually worth caring about. It also helps that its conclusion is wildly different than the good path's, something inFAMOUS didn't even attempt.

inFAMOUS 2 is one of the finest games I've played in years. It's the kind of sequel that's so extraordinary, it makes you see flaws in the original that you didn't even know were there. It's the kind of game that reminds you why you play games in the first place. You'd be a fool not to play it.

inFAMOUS 2 / $59.99 / PS3


Monday, July 25, 2011

Review // Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon

Alone in the center of a desolate city. Skyscrapers loom from all sides, glowering downward. I feel small. There are plain, empty cars scattered on the street around us. Two men in futuristic armor stand near me, silent and waiting. No one else in sight. What happened here?

A small group of people tumble out of an alleyway a few blocks from us, their faces twisted in an unnatural expression that I guess is supposed to represent fear. They scramble along the road as dozens of grotesque, elephantine wolf spiders scuttle and pounce over the horizon behind them. Figures.

I'm having another nightmare about spiders.

Years ago, I'd have these every couple of weeks. A dream interrupted by an onslaught of feral spiders, all gnashing and spitting. I'd wake up, alone, sweating and shaking in the dark. And though I was awake, the dream would continue. Spiders would crawl from every shadow, forcing me to turn on the lights and leave the room. Eventually, I stopped sleeping there altogether, opting for the couch downstairs instead.

The two faceless men in armor rush forward, but I can't move. I thought I'd gotten over this fear. I did. But staring into the cold, unfeeling eyes of a wolf spider three times my size as it rears up and lunges towards me makes my stomach turn. I want to run away; I want to wake up.

But I can't, and instead, I realize that I'm holding a rocket launcher. I have my own futuristic suit. I can fly. As the spiders get closer, I hover above the street, out of their reach, and rain rockets down upon them. They flip and spin in the air, legs frozen, before disintegrating into nothingness. One catches on and climbs the skyscraper next to me. I notice just before it can spring off and knock me out of the air. I panic, firing blindly, wildly. The building crumbles, and the spider falls. I feel like a god. This is no nightmare. This is catharsis.

A voice crackles into my ear — something about "saving the world" or whatever. This isn't about "saving the world." It's about saving myself. So I drown it out with a-ha's "Take On Me." It colors everything differently; there's no terror here anymore, just a brilliant, rotoscoped power fantasy. I'm smiling, even laughing, as I confront an adolescent fear. I'm flying, soaring, ripping apart buildings with reckless abandon and a childlike sense of wonder, tearing down any semblance of structure or civilization around me.

No one is telling me to be more careful, or stop. Or maybe they are, and I'm just not listening. I don't care.

I slaughter wave after wave of these spiders until there's nothing left but my two interchangeable allies. We press forward, into a cheap facsimile of a neighborhood. No one has ever lived here; it's nothing more than a cardboard arena meant to be destroyed. Huge, mechanical ants swarm us. UFOs zoom overhead, lasers firing wantonly. An enormous spider spewing acid from its swollen, bright orange abdomen crashes through a house. A 50-foot robot stomps ferociously through the street, striding through buildings with ease. My dream has become a 1950s-era sci-fi flick.

I switch to "Blood Sugar" by Pendulum.

Everything shifts again, just as radically as before. It's not silly or light-hearted anymore. It's manic, a frenzied double shot of adrenaline to the heart. The pounding beat acts as an electrifying war drum, commanding me to fly faster and farther, and shoot with an urgency I hadn't felt before. It's intoxicating.

And yet, now I find myself getting bored with how repetitive everything is — the same objective over and over, the same environments over and over, the same enemies over and over. I find myself getting frustrated by how my weapons reload; for whatever reason, they share energy with my jetpack, so I'm often left both unable to fly or reload for long periods of time. I find myself wishing I could tell how much life the bigger enemies have left as they can take forever to kill.

Everything keeps ramping up. At first, the piling on of bigger enemies is just annoying, but soon we reach a point where there's so much going on that I can barely keep up. Now it's absurd and awesome and dumb in the best possible sense. And then it all ends in the most anticlimactic way imaginable.

It was like being woken up by the world's most inopportune alarm clock and getting cheated out of a real ending. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is too short, too repetitive, and too tame, but it was therapeutic enough that I'm glad I played it at least once.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon / $39.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360


Monday, July 18, 2011

Looking For That Special Something: The Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Beta

The Uncharted series and I have had a pretty, uh, complicated relationship in the past. I thought Drake's Fortune started strong, but went completely off the rails about halfway through, piling on unbalanced enemies and eventually ludicrous zombie/monster/things. I went into the multiplayer beta for Among Thieves not expecting much, and didn't find much. There was potential, for sure, but there were still "some significant issues to fix."

Mind you, none of that stopped me from beating Uncharted 2's mostly stellar single-player campaign in one ten-hour sitting later that year, but the multiplayer never managed to hook me. It had its moments, but eventually, I got bored and moved on. But that was two years ago. I just finished playing the multiplayer beta for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception for two weeks. And you know what?

There are still some significant issues to fix.

The first thing I mentioned in my impressions of the Uncharted 2 multiplayer beta was how it took "far too many bullets to kill other players."

"Guns just don't feel powerful," I said, "and when there's as much cover as there is in the two maps included in the beta, it's too easy for opponents to slip away after taking half a clip." The game's developer, Naughty Dog, never quite fixed that in Uncharted 2's full release, and it's an issue that persisted even in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta.

I understand the thought behind it, that making the guns do more damage would mean quicker deaths and potentially wouldn't be as fun. It's something that Twisted Metal director David Jaffe has spoken extensively about in regards to designing his upcoming game's multiplayer. He wants players to develop a relationship with their opponents before one prevails. He wants a chase. And that's a noble, applaudable goal in a car combat game.

But these are dudes running around in t-shirts we're talking about here. Time and time again in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta, I found it far too easy to dash away and recover all my health in a few seconds if I felt outmatched. Having enough health to have the opportunity to dash away is great, but it recovers far too quickly; the game shouldn't completely reset the relationship between you and your attacker (or prey) automatically.

This is a problem that Jaffe and producer Scott Campbell seem to have nailed down for Twisted Metal. Here's what Campbell had to say about the subject to Game Informer:

One of the core mechanics that has made the franchise successful is the pickup game. When you’re running low on health, that becomes the mother of all pickups. Part of what many players will do, myself included, is explore the level and create kind of these high-speed battle circuits that incorporate where the health pickups are and just the satisfaction of getting in that circuitry and going into battle and going out to repair your car. I don’t know, I still find a lot of fulfillment when I’m a couple pixels of red away from dying and getting that last health pickup. I think it’s just such a core mechanic to the game.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault from 2002 remains my all-time favorite multiplayer experience — a game without regenerating health. It forced you to kill other players to earn health pickups. Allied Assault was such a tense, yet balanced multiplayer experience, one where skill reigned and every encounter felt special. You didn't need "Perks" or "Boosters" or "Medal Kickbacks" to keep the experience fresh and exciting. It just was already.

I'm not trying to sound like Cranky Kong here, though. I just got a strong sense that Uncharted 3, like its predecessor, is caught somewhere between the classic style of having a health bar and pickups like Twisted Metal or Allied Assault, and the newer system of regenerating health that works best in fast, frenetic multiplayer shooters where you already have almost no health, like Call of Duty.

I'm not even saying that Uncharted 3 necessarily needs a health bar and pickups. There are modern ways of splitting the difference. Killzone 2, for example, got around this problem brilliantly by only regenerating a small portion of your health bar. In Halo, you have a shield that regenerates, but your health does not, forcing you to collect pickups. Uncharted 3 could really benefit from a similar level of forward thinking.

But that's not the beta's only problem, by any means. The melee combat system, for instance, is still the same incredibly clumsy mess it was before, sometimes allowing for really satisfying instant kills when you sneak up behind someone, but most often resulting in two players facing each other, mashing the square button, hoping to come out on top. Whoever started mashing first usually wins, but occasionally, both players end up killing each other. There's just no skill or thought to it, and I almost wish it wasn't in there at all; I'd much rather melee serve as a way to knock an opponent backwards instead.

There were a ton of different modes available in the beta, but nothing too outside the realm of what other modern shooters are doing. The most interesting mode to me was Three Team Deathmatch, a mode that pits you and one other player against two other teams of two players each.

While in the standard Team Deathmatch mode, working as a team seemed almost optional, in Three Team Deathmatch, it's the only way you're going to stay alive. When I was paired up with another like-minded player, we had no trouble cleaning up the sloppy teams who couldn't work together. When I was paired up with a player who always wanted to do his own thing elsewhere, we both got picked off easily.

The biggest change to how you actually play the game were the Boosters and Medal Kickbacks, more commonly known as Perks and Killstreaks. They really are ripped straight from Call of Duty, and while the mere sight of them when I first loaded the beta caused me to give a long, knowing sigh, lamenting the death of individuality in modern games, I still couldn't help but get sucked right back into that "only one more match and then I can buy that hella awesome Perk" mentality that defined Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007.

Of course, that means that the game faces the Big Challenge of keeping all those perks balanced so that experienced players feel like that experience is rewarded, but not at the expense of the new players. So far, I don't think the game is doing an especially great job of that. I did noticeably worse against high-level players who had objectively better guns and abilities than me than against players at the same rank. Of course, a player with a higher rank has played longer and is probably more skilled already, but why, then, is it necessary to make their bullets do more damage, too?

Where the beta did shine, though, is in showing the potential for a multiplayer game that feels as much like Uncharted's single-player as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's brilliant, innovative multiplayer felt like its single-player. Brotherhood crafted a cerebral experience that forced a player to think and act like a true Assassin against equally dangerous human opponents. Instead of challenging the player's twitch reflexes or his ability to get headshots, it challenged his mind. It felt unique to the Assassin's Creed universe, unlike anything else on the market. Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta showed a glimmer of that.

The game's Airfield map starts out with one team inside a cargo plane trying desperately to take off while under siege by the other team, who leap fearlessly between speeding trucks barreling down the runway. It calls back to a similar sequence in Among Thieves' single-player campaign, and is every bit as thrilling, from either side of the cargo hold. It's exactly what I wanted out of an Uncharted multiplayer experience. But there's no objective, and it's over after a couple minutes.

The plane takes off and then BAM! Now you're in a truck, smashing into an airfield. Huh? You're back to traditional, static multiplayer, and you wonder what the point even was, then, of that whole airplane sequence. Or at least, shouldn't it have been presented the other way around, so that you start in the airfield, then the team with more kills gets to start in the cargo plane?

Either way, it's an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion to a revolutionary idea, punctuated by the fact that I just didn't like fighting in that airfield. I vastly preferred the beta's other two maps, a burning chateau and a Middle-Eastern city with dizzying verticality.

The beta's Co-op Adventure mode gave that same glimmer, but then again, it showed no real evolution of the formula established in Among Thieves. In fact, all it really did was make me wish Naughty Dog would spend less time making generic competitive multiplayer modes that don't particularly feel like Uncharted to me and instead build a separate cooperative campaign. With such a fantastic cast of characters, it seems like a no-brainer to make a cooperative side-story focusing on Drake and one or more of his globetrotting pals who he always seems to have a long history with. It's a rich, interesting universe, and the current Co-op Adventure mode feels like it's only scratching the surface.

Now that the beta's over and I've had a few days to process it, I feel like the conclusion I've come to is that, unless Naughty Dog decides to delay the game and massively overhaul it, Uncharted 3's multiplayer probably isn't going to be for me. But hey, if they can iron out how they handle player health, that might be enough to reel me back in. Generic competitive multiplayer isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's also really fun.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is set to release this year on November 1 for the PlayStation 3.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is Anybody Out There?: The Journey Beta

From playing its beta, the biggest question Journey seemed to be asking me was, "how do you react to solitude?"

Skimming through the desolate, shimmering ocean of sand in Journey might feel familiar if you played Shadow of the Colossus, a game that cast the player as a young man named Wander as he explored an ancient, ruined land on a violent quest for love. The player often had to travel for long stretches in near-silence and isolation, nothing to keep him company other than his horse, Agro. And in this isolation, many players found a poignant and deeply affecting meaning to the increasing amount of blood on their hands.

While there's no indication that you'll be scaling 50-foot Colossi or engaging in anything remotely close to "combat" once Journey hits for real later this year, the game still struck the same chord in me that Shadow of the Colossus did in 2005.

Journey begins pretty low-key, with you controlling a mysterious, robed character standing in the desert. It teaches you very quickly that you can turn the camera with the SIXAXIS motion controls or the right analog stick and move with the left analog stick. It's not as immediately remarkable as developer thatgamecompany's last two games — flOw and Flower, both controlled entirely via SIXAXIS and one button — but it's much more accessible in return.

In its beta, the game relies entirely on camera cues to direct you where to go, reserving more blunt text directions for introducing control mechanics that couldn't really be explained otherwise. It's a smart system, but if you're opting for the graceful sweeps of SIXAXIS camera control, it can be a little jarring to have that control temporarily wrenched from you without warning.

So you'll trek from one dune to another, endlessly admiring the glistening sand that acts more like shallow water, until you come across the various ruins of some ancient civilization. It's your choice whether to go out of your way to explore, or just follow the critical path.

You'll get the ability to jump pretty early on, but it doesn't function like in most games. Here, you have to earn each jump by finding floating scraps of cloth. And if you search out collectable white orbs, your character's scarf will grow longer and you'll be able to jump higher. It's an odd system, and I'm not sure how much it adds yet.

But that's the point. At its core, Journey is a game that's all about limitations: limitations in your control, limitations in your character's abilities, limitations in your interactions with the world around you. Like Shadow of the Colossus, you're almost always deprived of any surrounding life. Unlike Shadow, though, where the player formed an active bond with Agro and an inactive one with Mono, Wander's unconscious lady love, in Journey, you're totally alone.

And that's where it gets interesting. In theory, anyway.

Journey's big promise is in how it starves you for human connection. It'll pair you up with another player — you won't know who — and you'll be able to travel with him, or ignore him completely until he's removed from your game automatically. You can only communicate with that player via a "sing" ability where your character makes a noise and briefly emanates a white, ethereal glow.

Unfortunately, in the beta, thatgamecompany was only turning on the multiplayer at certain times, so I was never able to push through the hot sands with a companion. Instead, I was left with questions of how the system will work. For instance, can you boot the other player out if you don't like him? Will he be able to trigger cutscenes before I'm ready to move on? Will we be able to reach areas one player can't? And most importantly, how will another human player, an agent of chaos in an otherwise controlled, scripted world, change the emotional experience?

Journey's big promise is in how it starves you for human connection.

What I'm sure of, though, is how jarring it is to see anything resembling a living creature in Journey. In one part of the beta, I came across a kind of red kite that came to life when I approached it. It picked me up for a moment, almost playfully, before swooping away and diving into the sand. It emerged a little farther away, swimming through the sand as naturally and elegantly as a dolphin through water. It seemed to be beckoning me to follow. So I did.

It ushered me over dune after dune, and I slid down each one, racing along to catch up. Finally, we arrived at another set of ruins, where I gave life to four smaller kites. One picked me up as the rest circled, then we all took off on our next adventure. I wasn't alone anymore, and it felt invigorating. They led me to a white upgrade orb, then we kept moving, the music picking up and getting a lively bounce. But the ground rumbled for a moment, and my new friends rushed ahead.

I panicked, watching them dart over the horizon and out of sight. As I finally reached the top of the dune, I saw little red specks fly upward into a darkening sky, and I knew I was alone again.

This is the part of Journey that intrigues me the most. That it so quickly got me to feel a connection to these odd little kites is extremely promising for the rest of the game. Exploring the cracked, dry ruins of an old civilization and making my way to the glowing mountain looming in the distance were definitely intriguing aspects in this short beta, but my relationship with the pieces of the world still retaining a spark of life was far more compelling.

Journey is scheduled to release later this year for the PlayStation 3.