Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Continuing Adult Gaming...

Today, I am picking up where I left off in my last post in August.  Having established that the majority of "gamers" in the American market are roughly the age of 37, game studios have caught onto the fact that gamers just don't want to finish games that can't hold their interest.  Their response?  Instead of creating better games with more interesting and compelling content, they have chosen to focus their attentions on creating the same games, but in chapter form.

This morning, I will look into how things have changed, and call for a more conservative approach to gaming:

3.)  If games were more interesting, people would spend more time playing them.

I love a great RPG.  I make no bones about the fact that I despise FPS (First-Person Shooter) games with a fiery passion - I feel like they further entrench us into this "reality gaming" nonsense that seems to be so popular.  What I love about RPGs is that they take me outside of my reality and place me into a world of magic, knights, and clearly defined quests of good against evil.  The argument can be made that FPS, Zombie Killer Games, and war games allow us to do the very same thing.  Realizing that trend, RPG producers are serving up more and more mixed-genre games to try and attract that audience.

What RPG companies need to do is take a lesson from EA Sports.  Every year, they release the exact same game with minor tweaks, new faces, and better graphics.  The overall concept is the same.  For those of us who grew up with Namco Football (which was little more than electric football in video game form), looking at the sports games of today is an amazing transition.  Realistically, however, we keep getting fed the same game year in and year out - to FANTASTIC sales and astronomical profits.

Similarly, World of Warcraft (for all of its addictive flaws) found a niche market of people who want to do the same thing all the time, with moderately altered storylines and settings.  So long as graphics get updated every so often, their base gamers don't complain.  They have, for quite some time, maintained a consistently or growing subscription base since their inception.  Console-based RPG companies don't seem to be getting the picture.

Gamers, like all other people, are creatures of habit.  They want familiarity and consistency, because it provides them with a sense of comfort.  Square-Enix is the worst offender amongst RPG companies because they left behind their core audience long ago to produce what most RPG-lovers refer to as "dreck."  Does this make games formulaic?  Yes.  But, when you have a winning formula, stick with it.  Don't drastically alter time-honored franchises to try and drag in another niche audience - it is rarely successful, profitable, or worth the time and effort.

Ultimately, the answer is simple - if you want people to finish games, don't make them shorter to keep up with their hectic pace of living, make them more interesting to keep their attention.  Despite the common wisdom that this generation has no attention span, you'd better believe they're willing to stop everything to watch dreadful awards shows, embarrassing reality shows, and movies whose run time is about an hour too long.  They want to be entertained, and if your games can't even offer that, what the hell is the point of being in the entertainment industry, anyway.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Game Studios Perceive Their Consumers...

Being an avid gamer who is currently working on completing no fewer than eight games, at the moment (yes - ambitious, I know), I am full aware of my tendency to fail to complete a game that I've purchased.  Today, I ran across this article on CNN:

After attempting to finish the article itself, it was so poorly written and supported in its claims, though interesting in its statistics, I found myself feeling somewhat insulted by the belief that shorter games with less engaging story lines are the remedy to unfinished games.  

My initial reaction is to believe that game studios are out of touch with what their consumers want, particularly since they have very easily identified their consumers: the average age of gamers is 37, with the average age of game purchasers being 41.  This being the case, I think that we should reexamine the reasons why this age of people might try to enter the world of gaming.

1.)  Games were originally designed as a form of entertainment and distraction. 

Today, many game markets have moved forward to require so much time that they can overtake life, itself.  I'm not talking about games like Pokemon - though you've "Gotta Catch 'Em All," you can very easily put the game down for a few weeks or months or years, and pick up right where you left off.  I am talking instead of real-time games that require constant attention in order to maintain a positive experience.  

Take, for example, a simple children's game, Animal Crossing.  The most recent iteration of this game for the Wii was a massive step forward, in terms of the interface, and had many of the hallmarks of games geared toward the obsessive compulsive - a game designed around collecting objects, items, and fish, and the ability to endlessly customize the world around you with different types of plants, flowers, insects, houses, furniture, paintings, clothing, and...Jesus Christ...that's just too much many options.  On its face, this is just good business.  What better way to ensure repeated gaming experience than to offer endless play?

But then, there is the interactive feature.  Animal Crossing City Folk was offered with the Wii Speak accessory, which allowed players the ability to contact another person playing the game at the same time to visit their city, during which time they could speak with them in real time.  Great.  Just what any parent wants for their kids.  Given that the average age of gamers is 37, the likelihood that you're going to find someone under the age of 18 to chat with while touring their city is slim to none (I found no one who was under 25), leaving unattended children able to freely connect with any creepy adult.  Ugh.

In addition, in order to obtain everything, you must constantly attend to your game, checking in at least weekly, if not daily, to see what new things are available.  Every holiday in imagination has its own special events with special prizes and insects and contests and add-ons.  The game operates off a real-time clock set inside your Wii, which you CAN change to affect the game play, but at that point, is it really worth it?  The amount of time required to "complete" the game is never ending, and frankly, the gameplay and rewards just aren't worth it.

Once one peels back this very thin veneer of good business, there is a far more insidious product underneath the surface.  The game has its own form of currency - Bells - which one collects and exchanges for many of these upgrades to their house and home.  Consumerism at its best!  In fact, much of this game is predicated around a very consumer-driven concept of happiness.  The commercials for this game were very clear that there are no children playing this game, showing grown women playing the game together, either in person or via Wii Speak, talking about what new items to buy in the boutique.  Great.  Not only is it consumerist propaganda, but it's sexist, as well?  

Ultimately, Animal Crossing: City Folk has about as much staying power and long-lasting appeal as a Calorie Counter website.  Unless you're truly dedicated, updating it just isn't worth the effort.

2.)  The online gaming experience, outside of simple games, just isn't a good replacement for real life.  

We've all seen the fantastic video wherein the irate teenager freaks out when he finds out his World of Warcraft account has been canceled.  Whether the video is real or fake, it presents an interesting perspective on the negative repercussions that social gaming can have on one's life.  If I have one more person tell me that they've got to "water their crops" on Farmville, I might punch them in the face.

REALLY?  You're at work!  Take a freakin' break!  These are the game players for whom video game companies have a massive fetish.  They are easily manipulated into repeating a simple experience over and over again, so long as their friends are doing so with them.  These are the people for whom The Sims was an addiction, because it so clearly mirrored an idealized form of daily life.

Which I understand the appeal of sim games, I have yet to have the time or sustained interest to "finish" one of them.  There is, in fact, no finish to be had other than to throw one's hands up in frustration and walk away.

(To Be Continued...)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Ocarina's a Crime...

So, a quick rant from The Curmudgeonly Gamer -

Today, I received my copy of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time 3D in the mail (three days after its release date..."THANKS, Gamestop Expedited Shipping!!!" NOT!!!), and I have to say, while at first I was impressed, I have nearly thrown my 3DS across the room in frustration and annoyance.

I have four primary gripes about the game:

1.)  The game was already polygonal and had the appearance of late-90s 3D.  Upping the resolution to make it 3D doesn't really "add" anything to the game...although it doesn't subtract anything, either.  Or, does it?  Yes...the cut scenes are awesome in 3D (in a janky stereoscopic kind of way), but the game was already "viewed" with a 3D aspect thanks to fantastic art by the N64 artists.  Now, objects fly AT you and obscure the screen in a way that makes it not only annoying, but downright frightening at times.

2.) The Circle Pad motion controls are (excuse my French) a f**king travesty.  First of all, the Circle Pad is poorly calibrated to begin with; the previous games designed to use it for motion had designers who were smart enough to realize that people LIKE the D-Pad when they need specific directional movement.  The Circle Pad offers no such movement.  F**k that noise.

3.) While at first I thought the neat trick whereby when you move the 3DS, the screen moves with it in targeting mode was cool, I now realize after twenty minutes of trying to win a target game that was previously simple, that it f**king sucks!  Are you kidding me?  It basically just randomly selects where to start you on the screen, and then, you have to use the freaking Circle Pad to readjust the starting point, which then makes moving the screen via motion control even more awkward as you try to move your arms around and up and down to get it to go where you want, and then, after all that f**king work, you can't see the goddamned screen because the stereoscopic 3D aspect is fucked up because it's not directly in front of your face!

Really...this game is very poorly redone.  Great smoothing of the graphics, but otherwise in NO WAY worth the money.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Four Months, Six Games...

So, it's certainly been a while since I bothered to post anything on The Curmudgeonly Gamer, primarily because it seemed that there was no audience for it.  I have since reevaluated that decision after a number of fantastic games have come out this year, and they haven't gotten more than a glancing blow by the blogosphere or by traditional gaming news outlets.  In fact, no fewer than <i>six</i> great games have come out, most of which have either slipped under the radar or have simply fallen to the wayside as "relics of games gone by."  By now, we should know this perception of games to be a non-starter in the world of game reviews, but the urge for all things bright and shiny still seems to trump a quality gaming experience. So, without further ado, I give you the Six Games in Just Four Months:

6.)  Pokemon Black/White (Nintendo DS)

Pokemon - Black VersionPokemon - White Version

I have spent much of the last fifteen years avoiding Pokemon like the plague, calling the "fad" (which swept all of Japan and much of the below-15 U.S. population like a tsunami......too soon?) childish and not worth my attentions.  However, over the past few months, I went on a massive online shopping binge and ended up purchasing almost every Pokemon game for nearly ever system (discount the Gamecube/Wii games), and I have to say, aside from the massively repetitive gameplay and underwhelming graphics, I have been quite impressed with the series as a whole.

The most recent incarnation of this series has been Pokemon Black/White; two separate games for the Nintendo DS that came out, this spring, to the welcoming arms of a highly anticipatory gaming community (both the gamers and the reviewers).  While most fans of the games, themselves, were concerned, these games were just another opportunity to increase the number of unique Pokemon in their Pokedexes; the reviewers, however, were not so forgiving.

The overall consensus about the games was "We're really glad to see a new Pokemon game, but the gameplay hasn't really improved ENOUGH over the last release to make it worth the money."  I have to say, only having played LeafGreen and Black at this point (I'm trying to go from the beginning of the storyline to the end in chronological order), I have to say that I likely agree with that sentiment.

Pokemon Black/White was, in my opinion, a bit premature for its release date, which doesn't make much sense until you see the timing of its release in comparison to the release of the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo's newest market-crushing handheld console.  Here we have the next-gen Pokemon game, which offers gameplay in mostly 3D polygonal graphics with smooth screen-to-screen transitions, animated Pokemon, and a fully functional world, and they couldn't have simply developed it for a system that could really take the series to the next level?

Ah, but wait...there's more to this story than meets the jaundiced eye.  When planning a game's release, the system of that release is something to think about in terms of profit margins.  This game was released in a massively intelligent manner, as it could be purchased either separately or in a Nintendo DSi bundle, which included individually designed DSi consoles to match the game you purchased.  What a PERFECT way to ensure continuing sales of the outgoing system (which is still superior to the awkward DSi XL)!  Release a game that you are certain will sell like hotcakes to prop up the system you're going to be phasing out over the next two years.

Hot on the heels of Black/White came the Nintendo 3DS, which, unfortunately for Nintendo, was not released with any games worth more than a passing glace.  Sure...Street Fighter 3DS, The Sims 3D, and LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars 3D all deserve an honorable mention, but frankly, neither the gamers nor the reviewers were impressed with the lackluster cadre of games released for the initial launch of Nintendo's first salvo in their war on the gaming world.  

Sadly, the 3DS could have offered Pokemon Black/White a perfect platform for the game, which might have increased its value, but let's face it: a main-series Pokemon title is going to fly off the shelves regardless of whether or not it's living up to its full potential as a game, and Nintendo, as well as every gaming fan, knows it.

Overall, however, Pokemon Black/White offers dedicated Pokemon fans yet another opportunity to while away dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in their crack-like addiction to "catching them all."  The new Pokemon are similar to their older brethren, and while there's not much fresh in the way of innovative gaming involved, there doesn't really need to be.  Fans will buy it just for the sake of continuing the adventures they have so loved for nearly two decades.

5.) Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy (PSP)

Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite characters from the Final Fantasy series battled it out Mortal Combat-style?


Me, either.

So, being that I am a collector of all things Final Fantasy, I purchased the Dissidia Final Fantasy games simply to complete my collection (much like Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus, the oft maligned and critically panned shooter from the FF VII collection), and frankly, I should have stuck with my gut instinct and just skipped them both altogether.

Dissidia Final Fantasy games operate on the premise that there are two opposing factions of Light and Darkness in the world, and gives you the opportunity (after completing the main game) to fight as either side.  You, too, can now experience the boredom of fighting through a wholly linear script and feel like you've just spent $30 for a total waste of time and effort.

Luckily, Square-Enix recognizes the massively limited replay value of these games and, in a half-hearted effort to compensate for what is ultimately a beautiful yet underwhelmingly lackluster gaming experience by supplementing every other SE release with a special game code to unlock special costumes for the playable characters.  Now, you can dress Cecil from Final Fantasy IV in his Paladin outfit OR his Dark Knight outfit.  Wow!!!  WHAT A VALUE!!!

The problem with attempting to branch out to new audiences is that you ultimately end up losing some of your potential audiences.  With each fighting game fan SE gains with this series, it loses out on potential RPG fans - the gamers that are SE's bread and butter.  Though the technology and graphics are beautiful, the games just fall flat for anyone who would rather seek out new treasures, farm for rare item drops, and care about his characters.

Overall, Dissidia 012 [duodecim] Final Fantasy is such a letdown that it's almost not even worth the money to download it.  For those of you who have a PSP, save yourself the load times and the loud UMD disk and download it off the Playstation Network (once they finally bring it back online).  You'll thank yourself in the end.

4.) Ys I & II Chronicles (PSP)

YS: I&II Chronicles

Ys is one of the most storied game series of the last thirty years, and the first two games, in particular, have been released and re-released ad nauseum.  Though this incarnation is certainly graphically beautiful, the game, itself, is just not worth retelling over and over again.

But, let my back up a bit, to the original release of the game.  Ys was one of those games that required the patience of a saint.  Seemingly modeled off of The Legend of Zelda, minus the use of a sword or any sort of direction, Ys pits the player against a mostly unnamed and unidentifiable dark force that's stolen the two Books of Ys.  How you're supposed to know where to go and what to do is still a mystery to me, and without the aid of game guides, I would have NO clue where to go.

Though these games are classics, I have to question why they needed <i>yet another</i> release.  To date, these games have been re-released three times in the span of a little over two years, including both games being released on the Wii Virtual Console, as well as on the Nintendo DS.  How many times do these games need to be released before the profits fail to show.  I would imagine that this is the one that might finally do them in.

3.) LEGO Star Wars III: Clone Wars (PS3/3DS)

LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone WarsLEGO Star Wars III The Clone Wars 3D

I have been a big fan of the LEGO game series, but have always been a somewhat vocal critic of the LEGO Star Wars series, primarily because of their gameplay mechanics.  This game is no different.

While the other games in the LEGO series tell fantastic and engaging stories with cute characters, the Star Wars series have always fallen flat with me.  Maybe it's because I feel like the story has already been adequately told and retold thousands of times, and I just don't need to see anymore Star Wars; but's just not that great a story without words.

The biggest issue I have with the series is the gameplay mechanics.  The 3D version of the game goes a long way to fix some of the depth perception issues that plagued the first three games, but ended up creating new ones by insisting that space battles were necessary to advance the story.  Imagine're fighting a battle in a tiny aircraft in boundless space, surrounded by identical stars, and myriad 3D objects flying at you so quickly that it's impossible to keep track of what's going on around you.  Throw in some difficult to maneuver controls and a nearly worthless radar screen at the bottom, and you've got yourself a clutster fuck!

Those who like Star Wars are certain to love this game.  I, however, do not.

2.)  Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation (Nintendo DS)

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation

Finally, after over a decade of waiting, Dragon Quest VI, the only main series DQ game to never hit US soil, made its way Stateside on the Nintendo DS.  Avid DQ fans have been chomping at the bit for an official release ever since the game was illegally translated and ported via rom on the internet some ten years ago.  And the verdict is...

It's okay.  Not a revelation, by any means, in the JRPG franchise, but a good game, nonetheless.

DQ VI takes place in two corresponding worlds that affect one another - if you do something in one world, a corresponding change occurs in the other.  This was a pretty revolutionary advent in the 1990s, but doesn't really carry over well to today's gamers.  

Part of the issue is that Dragon Quests IV-VI were remade by the same company for the DS, and all look graphically identical.  The game sprites look similar, as do the monsters, and the gameplay is identical in all three games.  While it's great to see these games get a new port, and I'm very glad to complete my entire DQ collection, the freshness just falls flat when three very identical games are released over three years.

Don't get me wrong; I loved EVERY single hour of gameplay on all three games, but it didn't fulfill my craving for a newer, better Dragon Quest.  With the release of last year's Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, Square-Enix ventured into downloadable and social gaming in a way that revolutionized the series...and I can't WAIT for that nonsense to be done with.  What may work in Japan where scores of Japanese DQ fans wander around with their DS ready to play, does not work in the US and EU markets.  Try as Gamestop might, it's often difficult to get the often agoraphobic gamer community to gather together in one location.  Those who do connect with one another do so in an online setting; not by getting within twenty-five feet to exchange treasure maps and get guests in their inns.

To my way of thinking, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is still the quintessential DQ game, bringing together phenomenal gameplay with excellent music, mapping, and a storyline.  The perspective was wonderful when traveling around the world, allowing you to see things from the character's perspective as you wander around woods, castles, towns, and oceans.  This was the game that rebooted the flagging and forgotten Dragon Quest series, and made it, once again, a beloved title in the US.  Let's hope that Dragon Quest X on the Nintendo Wii will bring us back to that style of gaming.

1.) Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection (PSP)

Final Fantasy IV The Complete Collection

Without further ado, my favorite game this year, by far, is Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection.  I have to admit that FFIV was the one game in the series that, more than any other, drew me into its world wholly and completely.  The game came out in 1991, and was originally released in the US as Final Fantasy II on the SNES, and I purchased it on my tenth birthday with all the money I'd received over the holidays - to put that in perspective, I purchased the game for around $85 at a K-Mart. actually sold for $85 each for cartridge game.  Ridiculous.

At any rate, Final Fantasy IV has since seen no fewer than five remakes localized in the US for the PSX, GBA, Wii Virtual Console, DS, and finally for the PSP, each of which brought its own unique updates on the game that revolutionized the JRPG industry by incorporating a set of complex characters with a great plot, an overarching theme, and standard setting Active-Time Battle system (also the first of its kind).  But, is The Complete Collection the best version of the game, to date?

Honestly, I'd have to say, "Possibly."  Really, it's a toss-up between the DS version and the PSP version, but for different reasons.  While the DS version of this game brought a literally new perspective and voice acting to the game, the underlying framework that made the game wonderful in the first place remained intact.  I wasn't thrilled, however, with the confusing and oftentimes overwrought Augment System, whereby certain abilities and skills could be taught to characters to customize them to your liking.  I've never been a big fan of this kind of system, as it often leaves players uncertain as to the best way to complete the game, nor does it really make for great replay value. 

The PSP version has what the others don't - more content.  The new release contains the original game with updated graphics, music, and gameplay, along with the previously serialized Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (a somewhat disjointed and convoluted mess of a downloadable game released first on mobile phones in Japan and then on the Wii Ware network), as well as a brief Interlude game to bridge the gap between the two games.  The graphics alone are enough to make me squeal with joy, but when I have prospect of not having to pay for a new update every week, my heart skips a beat.  In this version, the 3D perspective is missing, but that's okay.  We're back to what made the game great, in the first place - a solid story, great characters, and cool monsters with impossible to attack rare drops...which leads me to the following bad news:

There are some drawbacks, however, as with any game, regardless of how nostalgic, and Final Fantasy IV suffers from one severe drawback - rare item drops from its myriad monsters.  I get it - getting that ultimate weapon shouldn't be something easy, but an item with a .078% drop rate is a bit outlandish.  After having the game for nearly two weeks, I have now spent almost 70 hours playing the game, about 60 of which were spent farming for these rare (and surprisingly not-worth-it) items.  Sure, the collector in me likes getting a perfect game, but at this point, is it really worth it?  I say, "YES, BITCH!"  Others may disagree.

All that aside, I will always think of Final Fantasy IV as the game that helped me get through my childhood.  It offered solace for me when I needed a break from my crazy family, and I spent countless hours playing and beating the game over and over again.  When I step back into that world, I am transported back to a time when I honestly believed that I could be that knight; that I could fight and win these battles; that I could be the hero.  If only life were a bit more like that, with floating Bomb creatures, and kingdoms that protect a crystal behind the throne...

Dare to dream.

And with that, I bid thee adieu, and wish all of you a fantastic week!

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Easy Way to Pass the Time...

As many of you know, I am always on the lookout for new downloadable games that will serve the purpose of distracting me from my curmudgeonly attitude towards gaming.  Yesterday, I decided to splurge on my PSN account and purchase one of the half-off games offered in their Specials, and ended up coming across a game called Costume Quest, a mind-numbing and delightfully fun candy-centered adventure RPG-lite available on both the PS3 and the XBOX 360.

At first glance, many of you may wonder why in the world I decided to go with this game over the myriad...all right, seven other games i could have chosen.  Ultimately, I liked the characters' big eyes, which reminded me of the cartoonish and cell shaded days of The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker from the Gamecube days of yore.  Other than that, it was $7.99 to purchase ($4.99 for the additional downloadable content), and the cheaper ones looked even less appealing - so, I took a blind leap, and hoped for the best.

While certainly not the most impressive game, it is a very easy way to while away a few hours gathering candy, beating up monsters, and collecting costume pieces to complete whole costumes.  Plus, it's an easy way to get a few PSN trophies...albeit girly ones.  It's not too detailed, and there's nothing amazing about any aspect of it, other than the originality, but it's certainly unique in the way it allows you to use the special skills of various costumes to travel around the areas.

The music is very Halloween-ish, by which I mean "Halloween Sound Effects Tapes from the 1990s.  Very good for background music, because it doesn't get in the way, doesn't sound overly triumphant, and doesn't have the traditional RPG "march into battle" feel made famous by Nobuo Uematsu in the Final Fantasy series.  It's kooky and sufficiently creepy to eight-year-olds, which is the perspective from which this game is told.  For those of you old enough to remember, this game really brings back fond memories of the late Jim Varney's Ernest Scared Stupid.  

The battle scenes are fun, with the sole exception of the random button pushing that occurs to either boost your own or defend from enemies' attacks.  Part of this is my curmudgeonly attitude towards Playstation's shape-based button system ("REALLY???  How the hell am I supposed to remember where Square and Triangle are on the controller?  And Circle and Square look exactly the same!!!").  The same problem existed in Final Fantasy X-2 during the Thunder Plains mini-game.  It is infinitely easier to remember simple letters (and their corresponding buttons) than shapes.  But...that's likely just me being an old man, unwilling to change his ways...despite the fact that I've owned Playstation products since 1997.

What makes me infinitely happy is the brevity of this game.  It's very easy to finish, and when you do, it luckily comes just when you've finally gotten tired of playing the damn game.  While the game is, at first, quite cute, it does get a bit trying after long-term play.  The premise, though interesting when you first start playing the game, doesn't hold its freshness throughout, and by the end of the second section, I found myself wishing that there wasn't a third, much less a fourth downloadable section.

Overall, however, the concept is fresh, the gameplay is decent, and it's cheap enough to be worth the $13.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ghosts From the Past...

On a whim I decided to purchase and download a game from the Playstation Network called Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers partly out of a sense of nostalgia for my high school years, and partly because I liked the idea of a game to keep me occupied when I'm bored and don't want to focus on collecting a whole bunch of stuff or blow anything up.  This game provided the perfect outlet for me to do just that - I can think and strategize while simultaneously not worry about getting destroyed by a passing enemy.

For those of you unfamiliar with Magic: The Gathering, the game has long been associated with all things "geek."  Imagine, if you will, a cadre of slightly overweight, white males with greasy hair, all stooped over decks of brightly colored cards, moving with lightning speed as they draw cards, turn them sideways, and argue over whether or not moves are illegal under current rules that they've seemed to memorize to the letter.  For two years during my high school career, I was a part of this crowd.  Though I was never terribly good at playing the game, I enjoyed the thrill of play, even if I was sure to lose against far better players.

The card game, itself, focuses on five basic colors - Red, White, Black, Blue, and Green.  Each color has its strengths and weaknesses, but players can easily create and adapt their decks to suit their style of play, and customize it endlessly to meet their needs.  When I played the game, I focused on making esoteric decks that were never really effective, and frankly were so far out there that no one against whom I played had any respect for my "creativity," and easily beat the crap out of me when we played.

The video game version, however, does not allow for such creativity (at least not to my knowledge).  Duels of the Planeswalkers provides players with pre-built decks to use in their campaigns, and with each successive battle fought, a new (and generally more powerful) card is unlocked and added to your deck.  As you continue to battle, new decks are unlocked for you, but your options for customization are limited.

While this game provides me with loads of time killing strategy and fun, there are a few qualms I have with the game:

1.)  The issue of deck customization is something of a sticking point for me.  While I understand that it's difficult to program a game to allow for the literally millions of different combinations of cards you can choose, I feel very backed into a corner because I am unable to play to my strengths and weaknesses.  This is a double-edged sword, though, as these decks are pre-built with the idea of effectiveness in mind - a feat that I was never quite able to manage.  In some ways, the lack of customization is probably saving me from experiencing humiliating losses at the hands of the computer.

2.)  The background music is honestly terrible.  It's this mix between dramatic guitar rock and suspenseful and slow riffs that are really only tolerable, at best.  It's a throwback to crappy game music from the mid-90s, and frankly, the best part about the settings is that it allows you to turn off the music, altogether.

3.)  The ability to connect with others and play against the seems, at first, to be cool.  In my case, it allowed me to reconnect with a friend of mine from thirteen years ago who then proceeded to completely annihilate me in less than ten minutes.  It was fun, for the first few minutes, but frankly, unless you enjoy the prospect of wearing a headset to chat with someone while you play cards with them, it's not very much worth the effort or the glitches it will cause on your PS3.

Overall, Magic: The Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers is definitely worth the $9.99 investment, and the $4.99 for three expansion packs are worth it, after you've exhausted all the regular play hours.  As for paying $0.99 to unlock individual cards, I find them to be almost entirely worthless.  You can unlock them through gameplay, anyway, so why pay extra for the early advantage?


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

When Expectations Meet Reality...

Over the past month, I have frequently lauded the LEGO game series, from Batman to Indiana Jones to their greatest culmination, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4.  With each game, I was more and more impressed with the time, energy, and effort that went into creating these fantastic worlds.

And then, there came LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga by LucasArts games - reality had to set in at some point.

Having just come down off of the fantastic gaming high that was LEGO Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues, I entered into this game with the high expectations that my previous endeavors into LEGO Land gaming had created.  Boy was I ever disappointed.

I should preface this entire Blog post by saying that I am not only bored by Star Wars, in general, but that I loathe it.  Even as a kid, I never got the sense of wonder and amazement that my father or uncles got, and I never really cared about the characters, the dime store storyline, or its penchant for preachy dialogue and plot devices.  I was never amazed by the creatures in this Sci-Fi wunderkind, nor was I really compelled by its setting or its heroes.  As an entire franchise, I really just find it rather boring.

Now that I've alienated what is likely to be the entire male gamer population, I shall continue on with this week's rant.

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga manages to get nearly everything wrong when it comes to creating a playable game.  Everything about it is off kilter, from its play control to its depth of view.

Play Control: 

Now, I shouldn't really have any expectations that I'm going to be playing the next generation of highly responsive controls while playing something released in 2007, but seriously...we've been at this whole gaming thing for nearly 30 years, and this is what you come up with, LucasArts?  The characters are both unwieldy and difficult to control.  Most characters are basically useless when it comes to using them for fighting, and it's nearly impossible to survive a single level without being exploded into tiny LEGO bits because you are unable to get your characters to react to the buttons you are pushing (yes...I actually invoked the "HE DIDN'T DO WHAT I TOLD HIM TO DO" argument from the days of yore).

Game Play:

The game itself plays a bit like some of the worst Doom games from the 90s.  Whereas other LEGO games would have you smash things to obtain studs (money), and even Harry Potter's characters get to "Leviosa" objects to get them, this game insists that you stop nearly every five steps to use "The Force" on everything from plant life to cups in the Mos Eisley Pub (which serves as the Hub for the different episodes...the Pub Hub).  This takes up not only value time and energy, but proves massive dangerous as enemies come at you at a nearly constant rate, seemingly without relent, and you end up getting blown up and losing more studs than you might have collected for all this "Force" nonsense.


While a lot of the attention to detail is there, the graphics aren't terribly inspired, as far as LEGO games go.  The worlds are rendered in a nearly impossible to grasp 3-D environment, and it is often unclear where your character needs to jump or where he (or she) will land after performing a jump.  The depth perception is incredibly awkward, here, while creates more frustration for players who are used to more clearly defined and accessible landscapes.  It's not that the levels aren't well made, rather that they're not designed to be anything more than art.  Playing in them is incredibly difficult, and this is compounded by the awful play control exhibited by the characters.


While the music is, of course, the original John Williams score, levels are often overwhelming in the amount of sound effects that are played.  It's just too much noise, damn it!  They're all true to the Star Wars legacy, and any geek who loves authenticity will love them, but it's a near constant din, making every level too loud, particularly when you have great speakers.


If you don't know the story from Star Wars Episodes I-VI, you were either born after they were released or have been living in exile in a cave for the past forty years.  That does not mean, however, that the story should not be told in the course of the game that purports to tell it.  Entire segments of the story are left out, and not much is explained in the way of the story, except at the beginning of each level by means of the classic Star Wars intro text that scrolls up the screen in yellow letters against a starry background.  This would help, except that what you do in the level has little to do with anything that was ever seen in the movies, and barely functions as a story device because the cut scenes don't tell the story any better than does the text.

This game relies almost entirely upon the legacy of the Star Wars series to get people to purchase it.  It is, however, the weakest entry into the LEGO gaming universe to date.  Without the almost assured crossover appeal between gamers and Star Wars enthusiasts, this game would likely fare poorly.  It's really just a very poor attempt to capitalize upon a franchise, and makes me think twice about even bothering with the next entry in LEGO gaming, LEGO Star Wars Episode III: The Clone Wars.   


Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure ContinuesLEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4Lego Star Wars: The Complete SagaLego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ringing in the New Year...

Being the curmudgeon that I am, I occasionally take the time to reflect on things and take a more measured approach to certain situations.  Obviously, passionate response is, for me, a way of life.  That does not, though, mean that it is the only way to go.

Today, I would like to talk about something that I've hinted at before during my rants about Square-Enix, and its abysmal failures at breaking into new markets successfully.  It is vital to understand that my problem lies not only with Square-Enix, but with the concept that every company has to become multi-faceted and provide games for everyone.

I currently work for a restaurant whose menu has literally 1,000 items on it.  For some people, this seems great - they can choose from dozens of different types of food, and more choices always equals better, right?

No.  It isn't.

I know this because I have the responsibility of answering to my guests whenever they are unhappy with a selection.  We are, of course, told never to say something is "bad," but to asked to gently guide them to an option that we like.  This rarely works, and sometimes brute force is the way to go - it is generally appreciated when a server is just honest with you and tells you that the food just isn't that good, and you would be better served going with something else entirely.

There is, however, a reason why some things are awful and others are mediocre or better - when you try to be everything to everybody, you lose the ability to do any one thing excellently, and mediocrity is the tone of everything.

I know that I like RPGs (for the most part).  I like the fact that I don't have to fight, Mortal Kombat-style, and can focus on a storyline that is cohesive and compelling.  I know that I like puzzle games like sudoku and crossword puzzles.  These are games that I can play on my own, without having to bother with anyone else, which is really a good thing.

Perhaps the only company to successfully break into other markets is Nintendo...and that's only because they led the industry for most of the 80s and created those genres.  Other companies have attempt to create games for multiple genres, and for the most part, all have failed miserably.

We wouldn't expect EA to start dealing in JRPGs, nor would we expect Konami or Capcom to produce a high-energy crossword puzzle game.  No - in fact, these efforts would be dismissed outright - and yet, when Square-Enix puts out war games, first-person shooters, and rereleases Space Invaders, no one says to them, "HEY!!!  THAT'S NOT YOUR JOB!!!"

EA is there to put out copycat replications of sports games (they all operate basically the same way...just with better graphics with each new release.  It's sad to me, for example, how people keep purchasing Madden NFL games - it's the same shit, every year.  There aren't even new stories...just new players, better graphics, and...well, that's about it.  In fact, it brings me to question the intelligence of their target audience who keep buying the new version every year.  But...they are smart, because they have cornered the market.  Every other company that attempts to break into the sports gaming market falls flat.

Konami is supposed to put out games like Castlevania.  They have been leaders in the industry in developing new action games that are both engaging and increasingly impossible to play, especially for old curmudgeons like me who get vertigo when playing 3-D games.  But, even I must admit that these games are beautiful.

Overall, video game companies, much like restaurants, need to focus on doing one or two types of things to the best of their abilities, and stop trying to please everyone.  It just produces beautifully rendered, but terribly mediocre-to-poor quality games.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow  Madden NFL 11  Space Invaders Extreme  Mortal Kombat