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