Friday, March 16, 2012

Review // Dark Souls

I was arrogant when I started Demon's Souls. I ignored the warnings of those who had come before me and pranced through the first level without dying once, laughing in the face of man and God alike.

But check the dates of my trophies and you'll see a pretty clear story being told: My arrogance lasted about a month and a half before I finally got stuck and quit until eight months later when an insomnia-driven decision at 4 a.m. got me back in. I overcame my roadblock, fell asleep, then woke up and burned through the rest the game in one ridiculous 11-hour stretch — impressive, but it still took me nine months to beat Demon's Souls.

It took me two weeks to beat Dark Souls.

It took me one week to beat Dark Souls a second time.

Instead of holding your hand and gently introducing you to their worlds, the Souls games prefer to spend their opening few hours breaking you down to see how much you can take. They kill you in their tutorials, pit you against impossible odds from the start, and happily display ominous messages left on the ground from other players that range from desperate pleas for help to crushing admittances of defeat, like "I can't take this..." Even the back of the Dark Souls box warns you in bold lettering, "Prepare to Die."

To new players already struggling to make sense of the cruel, violent world they've entered, it just seems sadistic. But veteran players know exactly why this suffering is necessary.

You need to die in the tutorial because it's the most valuable lesson you'll get: death is not failure here. You are trapped in a purgatory, sentenced to live and die and be reborn again and again until you have fulfilled your duty. Death is simply part of the experience.

They kill you in the tutorial because you have to learn to let go. In the opening few hours, you'll be scrounging for souls like a man in a desert scrounges for water. Souls are everything here: you'll buy items, repair equipment, and upgrade your character all with souls. They are your lifeblood. And when you die, you'll leave a bloodstain on the ground with all your souls in it; die on the way back to your bloodstain, however, and they'll be lost forever.

The psychological effect of this system is staggering. Carry a lot of souls and you'll tiptoe through the environment, terrified of anything that could pose the slightest threat—those souls aren't just your in-game currency; they are digital representations of your time. Lose them and you won't just be depriving your character of another upgrade point, but you'll have nullified hours of your life, too. The sheer anxiety of trying to make it back to your bloodstain without dying is often enough to get you to make a mistake and die. On the other hand, if you don't have any souls on you, you don't have anything to lose, either. Suddenly, dying is of no consequence. You can play recklessly, try to tackle bosses you'd normally be too scared to fight, or just push forward into the unknown.

That's why it's so important to learn to let go. Early on, every soul is precious, but later in the game and in subsequent playthroughs, when the cost of leveling up is so high that you'll only be able to upgrade after boss fights, you simply won't care about the absurd amount of souls you just lost. You'll be free.

The world of Dark Souls is organic and seamless, one area flowing into the next and wrapping back around again. It's easy to find yourself stuck in one area for hours, respawning in the same spot over and over every time you die, so whenever you finally break out just enough to unlock a shortcut between areas, it's enormously satisfying.

You're never given a map, but you also won't ever need one, either. If you've already been to an area, it won't be long until you've completely memorized every inch of it, and if you haven't, not knowing where you're going or what you'll find when you get there is half the fun.

That mentality extends to the basic mechanics of the game as well. The game will tell you what each button does, but that's about it. From that point on, you're on your own. Figuring out what, exactly, a "bonfire" does, or what "humanity" is used for, or what the benefits are to joining the different "covenants" is left entirely up to you. If it sounds like I'm skirting around describing these in detail, it's because I am. As far as I'm concerned, those are the real spoilers in Dark Souls.

You need to die in the tutorial because it's the most valuable lesson you'll get: death is not failure here.

And that's why community plays such an essential role. Messages left by other players can guide you along, warning of ambushes and pointing you in the right direction, or they can lead you into a trap. You can willingly summon other players into your game to help you out, but they can also forcibly invade your game to kill you for profit. If you're invaded, the game will lock you in an area until either you or the invader is dead. Normally, you'll get a notification warning you of the invasion, but sometimes, you'll just notice that you've been locked in before the game has had a chance to notify you, and a brief moment of confusion will turn into a grim realization.

I summoned friendly players into my game whenever I could; every single experience is memorable in some way. The game has intentionally limited communication options between players, which forces everyone to get creative. Even without text or voice chat, players still found ways to convey complex ideas to me like "keep your shield up in this area" or "oh, God, we're in way over our heads. Run!" Bonds are formed and broken in minutes—some of the strongest I've ever felt in a multiplayer game—and all with players I never directly spoke to or even knew the names of.

The odds you're stacked up against in Dark Souls often feel impossible, like the game's not playing fair, and that's the genius of it. It's a multiplayer game that never really feels like it was built for more than one person, so when you band together with other players, you feel like you're somehow subverting the game's harsh rules. You feel like you're cheating against an enemy that absolutely cheats against you every chance it gets. It's beyond cathartic.

The game also plays a Lucifer role, tempting the community to turn on each other by offering rewards for those who successfully invade and kill other players. When you meet one of these red phantom traitors, it's exhilarating and terrifying. You'll circle each other in a slow, charged dance, swords at the ready, each waiting for the other to blink. Since most players who invade have already beaten the game at least once and are at a pretty high level, your chances of surviving an encounter are going to be pretty slim for a long time. But the first time you successfully fend one off is an intoxicating moment.

An early objective is to ring a bell in a church tower. If you're in the area, whenever another player rings the bell in their game, you can hear it in yours; even when you're not directly interacting with other players, their presence is always felt, reminding you that you are all in this together. Their ghostly apparitions flicker in and out of your game. Their words of wisdom or deceit are scattered throughout the world. Their bloodstains litter the ground, recordings of the tragic last few moments of their life. Learn from them, and mourn the fallen.

It can feel impenetrable at times, but keep going; there's a moment in each of these games that every player who sticks with it long enough will experience, when everything clicks into place and they finally understand. When that actually happens, though, is different for everyone—it took me nine months to truly understand Demon's Souls.

Dark Souls is most often defined by its relentless difficulty, but there's genuine meaning to it. The game itself plays the role of a grand antagonist, pushing you to fight harder and form a community to rise up against it. You'll need real patience and persistence if you want to succeed here, but if you can, it's one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have with a video game.

Dark Souls / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Game of the Year 2011 // Batman: Arkham City

The "Game of the Year" award goes to the game that had me hooked harder than any other game last year. If I wasn't playing this game, I was thinking about it. It made other games look lazy and deserves to be recognized as the best game of the year.

I've beaten Batman: Arkham City twice. I've done all the side missions—twice—and perfected all the challenge maps. I've cleared out every rotten corner and dank alleyway of Arkham City, yet I'm still eager to get back in there and do it all over again. If you were to suggest that I'm as obsessed with Batman as Hugo Strange himself, well, you'd probably be right.

That shouldn't be too much of a surprise. After all, Batman: Arkham Asylum was my Game of the Year for 2009. It redefined the stealth genre, set a new standard for melee combat, and shattered expectations for what a licensed game can deliver.

And yet Arkham City is even better. Here's why:

You Can Counter Multiple Guys At Once

If I had to identify the single coolest thing about Arkham City, it'd be that Batman can now simultaneously counter up to three attacks. So let's say you're in a fight and you spot two guys about to hit you at the same time; just tap the counter button twice and Batman will brutally rebuff both of them in one swift, violent motion. It's simple, but so satisfying.

But countering multiple enemies at once is just one of many excellent refinements to the combat formula from Asylum. It feels like Batman has a dozen new moves in City, and all of them are awesome. Watching Batman completely dismantle an assault rifle in about one second flat, or punch a dude's face through the window of a car door he was using as a riot shield, or grabbing a guy's metal pipe and bending it in half in front of him is always ridiculously badass.

The melee combat in Arkham City is easily the best melee combat in any game, ever. Even Arkham Asylum.

Now Batman Can Fly

Open-world games often live and die by how fun it is to just mess around in their environments. Put simply: if all you want to do between missions is get to the next mission, there's a problem. Arkham City doesn't have that problem. I burned a disgusting number of hours perching on gargoyles and combing through alleyways, popping Joker balloons and beating up dudes, or doing nothing in particular really, just flying around aimlessly.

Chalk that up to the brilliant flight mechanics that feel like a hybrid of the cape power-up in Super Mario World and the parachute and grappling hook combination from Just Cause 2. Batman can glide, dive toward the ground, and use his grapnel gun to latch onto then boost past structures to maintain speed. It's exhilarating, the kind of mechanic that takes practice to master, but once you have, it becomes second-nature.

A lot of games last year had excellent traversal mechanics, but nothing compared to the raw thrill of hurtling toward the ground at breakneck speeds before pulling up at the last second and soaring away.

Interrogating Dudes, or "Swear To Me!"

The Riddler's a crafty guy. No doubt about that. But Batman is craftier: Riddler leaves diabolical puzzles all over the city; Batman solves them. Riddler plants informants in all the gangs; Batman systematically hunts them down and punches the information out of them. Such is the way of life in Arkham.

It didn't matter what I was already doing; I always stopped to interrogate a Riddler informant if I spotted one. It just satisfied some kind of raw, primal urge in me to dive bomb into a group of thugs, surgically take out everyone but the informant, then lunge and grab him by the throat to begin a friendly chat.

Same with the puzzles. There are an absurd amount of riddles to solve, and I happily completed every single one of them. They weren't just mindless collectables, either. Each represented a unique mental obstacle to overcome, another extremely personal challenge from the Riddler. Real care and craft was put into making the Riddler's influence felt in Arkham City, and it shows.

Batman Has The Coolest Villains

And I don't even think that's debatable, either. From the Riddler's insufferable arrogance to Mr. Freeze's calculated fury to the Joker's chaotic anarchy, Arkham City delivers the best roster of villains in any video game to date as far as I'm concerned.

The sharp writing and outstanding performances from the whole cast play a big role in that. Hugo Strange, especially, is truly diabolical, with his calm, sinister voice demanding that Batman examine his own role in all the madness happening in Gotham: "Your presence creates these animals."

The best part is how Arkham City embraces just how different each villain is. Everyone is a unique threat that must be dealt with accordingly, and each villain challenges Batman in a new way, pushing him further toward the brink. The boss fights in Arkham Asylum were easily the worst parts of that game, but in Arkham City, they're some of the best.

It's Just So Goddamn Fun

And this is where Arkham City absolutely demolishes all competition. There were a lot of fantastic games last year, but none of them had me hooked as hard as this one did, and it all comes down to how unbelievably well-executed the entire experience is.

It didn't matter how many times I told myself that I'd only play for a little while, do a mission or two, then stop — I was always in for the long haul. I hungrily consumed whatever content the game could throw at me until there was simply nothing left to consume, so I started all over again. I blew off class, friends, and work in my relentless, obsessive pursuit to clean the streets of Arkham. I lost sleep and skipped meals. And you know what?

I regret nothing.

If you want to hear how I chose Batman: Arkham City, you can download my deliberation process, subscribe with iTunes, or listen to it below:

Runners-up: inFAMOUS 2, Dead Space 2