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July 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Against the Current

Although it took a little while to get to it, and it's also taking me a while to get into its rhythms, I'm now comfortably working my way through Bioshock on the Xbox 360. It's the kind of game I'd prefer to play on my laptop, but 2K's insistence on SecuROM copy protection pretty much nixed that idea--astonishingly, even the Steam Bioshock install includes Sony's SecuROM, despite being already wrapped in a layer of less-offensive DRM. Maybe they just decided it wasn't annoying enough.

Obviously the game is a polished, well-crafted experience. The voice acting is particularly high in quality, while the enemy character designs are relatively lackluster. I'm not convinced that the plot's as brilliant that it's been made out to be, but it's good. Still, I keep finding myself struggling against a general sense of confinement, as if parts of Bioshock were chopped off to make it fit a console mentality. I had thought people were complaining needlessly when they called it "dumbed-down," but now I'm not so sure.

Take, for example, the almost inexplicable lack of an inventory screen. Bioshock, unlike its spiritual inspirations in the System Shock series, doesn't provide any way to manage the various objects that the player picks up in Rapture. Consumable objects are used right away, and there's no real limit on the number of weapons that can be carried. I don't really miss those "features" since cramming sprites into a grid and then rearranging them constantly is not my idea of a good time. What is limited, however, are the active and passive genetic powers accumulated during the game, and these can only be swapped out at specific Gene Bank stations. More importantly, the only place to view any equipped gene tonics is at the Gene Bank.

This is clumsy--noticeably clumsy, given the rest of the game's polish. I could understand gameplay reasons for forcing the player to stick with only a few tonics at a time, but why can't I see what I have installed? My memory only goes so far--what if I want to check what I'm currently using, since it's not always instantly obvious? What if (and this happens often to me) I haven't been playing in a while, and I've simply forgotten where I left off? When I first ran into this problem, I spent several minutes flipping between tabs on the help menu, thinking that I had just missed it. But no: there's no way to see what tonics are currently in use, except by trudging over to a Gene Bank, wherever that might be. It's amazing that a game offering instant reloads, hints, and even a guided arrow for navigation (which I quite like, honestly, in this kind of story-driven affair) doesn't offer a simple status screen.

Speaking of clumsy, how about that hacking mini-game? Somewhere out there, Pipe Dreams enthusiasts weep tears of joy. The rest of us curse at the screen. It's not that it's hard to play. It's that the mechanics of it--moving around a grid, constantly smacking the A button to uncover tiles and then swapping them with tiles in other, non-contiguous positions--are simply not well-suited to a gamepad. With a mouse cursor, the game is tolerable, if only because it's so much faster. Even giving gamers a faux-cursor controlled by the analog stick, a la Chu Chu Rocket would have helped. But as it is, it's a horrible frenzy of d-pad tapping that's out of sync with the rest of the game's navigation.

Which reminds me: the controls. Granted, I am a hostile audience for console shooters. I have joked, in the past, that people who enjoy playing first-person games with a gamepad are heathens who should be sent to live in a godforsaken wasteland like Montana, far from the rest of civilization. Bioshock works hard to keep the process painless--it boasts an auto-aim that will lock on and follow a target for a moment, as well as a turning speed that increases if the right stick is held left or right for a moment.

But these are all just lipstick on the pig. They're patches meant to make up for the fact that it's still tremendously cumbersome to control a first-person viewpoint using a thumbstick, and no amount of tweaking will change that. The gamepad alters the entire feel of things: instead of being able to whip your virtual head around naturally, you're constrained to something more tank-like and plodding. Environmental awareness is lowered, and reaction time increases. It feels like being back in 1998, playing Duke3D with the arrow keys.

(I will say that the one thing I wish PC shooters could steal from consoles is analog movement control. Going from a silent creep to a full-out run on a keyboard has the same jerky rhythm and mechanical feel as shifting gears in a car. Likewise, the ability to vary the strafe-to-run ratio on the fly gives extra fluidity to console movement. I suspect that many console gamers use this extra flexibility in maneuvering to make up for the deficiences of thumbstick aiming, but it's not enough for me.)

Fine! you may say. Take your whining and play it on your PC, if you're so frustrated by it. Hey, I'd like to, obviously. But 2K has decided, by putting SecuROM protection on the disc, that I can't trust their product to behave on my laptop. I'm just not willing to let it install an admin-level service, or to prevent me from using diagnostic tools like the Sysinternals kit. Indeed, I find it both suspicious and depressing that the programs I use to find and fix problems--and thereby keep the computer healthy for active use, including gaming--are systematically undermined by this copy protection.

This is a vicious cycle, as I've noted before. Clearly, between the two platforms, the publisher has decided to make one of them a second-class citizen. Given the choice, of course I'm going to play Bioshock on a console, where I don't have to worry about activations or rootkits, even though I find the gaming experience to be negatively affected. And when the PC version sells relatively little compared to Xbox sales, 2K will claim piracy, and use this justification to continue adding intrusive copy protection to their titles.

Other than that, the game's not bad.

May 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»wii_fit

Won't Fit

Nintendo's going to make a killing on Wii Fit. More of a killing, I mean, than the one they're already making on the Wii itself. Last Friday morning, on my way out of Panera, I stopped by Gamestop to see if they had any of the former in stock, only to find that people were lining up to buy up the newly-arrived shipment of the latter. The place sold $1,000 of game consoles in about 10 minutes.

No, Wii Fit wasn't in stock. Nobody has it. Nobody's going to have it for a very long time. Nintendo can't even get the basic machine onto shelves fast enough, much less a crossover product for it. And I suspect Fit is going to be huge, for two reasons: 1) we're an overweight country, and 2) we like sitting in front of the TV.

I'm no stranger to either of these, of course. I've gained weight since college (although I would argue that it's more that I was undernourished in college), I live a pretty sedentary life, and it's no secret that I enjoy both b-movies and buttonmashing. You have a product that will fix one and satisfy the other? Ah ha! I say, along with every other sedentary television-owner in America. Sign me up!

...if I can find one.

Filed under: gaming»software»homebrew

The Homebrew Channel

For my own future reference: Wii hackers have managed to create a Homebrew Channel for the system's main menu, putting non-licensed code on pretty much the same level as virtual console and first-party apps. Very interesting.

May 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order, Part Two

I owe STALKER (the game, not the movie) an apology. Not for calling it ridiculously overpunctuated (although I guess over-abbreviated would be more accurate), but I quit it last time after only a few hours, frustrated at its weapons model and its opaque narrative structure.

After watching the film, I got an itch to give the game another shot. I figured I wouldn't last long, but I was a little curious as to how much of Tarkovsky's visual aesthetic had ended up in the game. I decided to head in, spend a few minutes looking around, and then I'd blow it off again. But it turns out that I'm still playing.

I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, but my suspicions, like Jay Leno's chin, are twofold. First, I started paying more attention to the automap in the corner, using it to find stashes and watch for bodies to loot. Second, at some point I was clued in about the location of one of the mission goals that I never previously had been able to find. Unless the player locates a hidden flash drive in one of the underground tunnels, the game basically halts--my first time through, I had no idea where it was.

Which, I'd like to point out, is an easy situation to end up in: the drive is actually hidden in a pipe behind some very poor level design--the lip of the pipe is just slightly too high for the Stalker to step over it, and in the end I had to resort to the old Half-Life trick of jumping forward while crouching (which, in Stalker requires the use of the forward key, the spacebar to jump, and two separate crouch buttons to reach a "low crawl" state. It's a little awkward).

But once past that point, the game has opened up tremendously (especially since that's the first moment when you get a decent weapon). It is, as I told a friend, like Oblivion with Chernobyl-born mutants and AK-47s instead of elves and swords.

As far as the film's influence, I've seen very little on display so far. Stalker does include a number of wide open fields and ruined buildings, but its color palette is much more gloomy and grim than Tarkovsky's--and of course, the first sight of a uniformed soldier dispels any hope that the game will share the movie's character-driven, dialog-heavy atmosphere. The only real similarity I've seen so far is the glow of high-radiation areas: when you stumble into one of these, the screen begins to oversaturate and acquire a kind of film-grain effect that's very striking.

Stalker definitely has its flaws. The AI can be a little wonky, and I've failed missions for what seem to be no apparent reason. The text is barely localized, and NPC conversations are oil-slick shallow. But the game does have its own distinctive atmosphere--the untranslated Russian voices and signposts, the click of the geiger counter, and howling dogs during the dark nights make sure of that. The combat itself has a very different feel from most shooters, but once you get used to it, it's got its charms. All in all, it's an impressive piece of work, as long as you don't get caught on any of the rough edges. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Extra credit: For those who might be curious, you can read the original short story that inspired the movie and game, "Roadside Picnic," here, since it seems to be unfortunately out of print elsewhere.

March 8, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»excel

I'm Not the Only One

...doing inappropriate rapid application development in Excel: Excel as 3D engine via Rock Paper Shotgun. He exposes the guts of the matrix calculations in the spreadsheet itself, then uses the cells of another as "pixels" for display (an idea that I'm sure most people who've zoomed out on a spreadsheet have thought about). It's all very tongue in cheek, with lots of references to resizable pictures and the engine's "advanced" capabilities. But behind the joke, there is something that I've always found fascinating about working within VBA.

When I was in my first or second year of college, I remember reading about LISP for the first time, back when I thought I might be a programmer for a living. LISP programs are made up entirely of lists inside of other lists, and there's no distinction between program commands and data--you can, quite easily, generate a list of new program instructions and then run them, making LISP very useful for AI research.

The idea that the program could actually write itself just struck me as really cool and thought-provoking. I never learned how to actually program in LISP, mind you (all those parentheses make my eyes cross), but conceptually I thought it was a neat experiment. As I've been learning a bit more about Javascript lately, I get a little bit of the same vibe--not that it can rewrite its own code (although I guess it could), but the idea that a page in a web-browser can dynamically rewrite itself based on user input is, in an admittedly incredibly dorky way, kind of magic.

What I like about working in Excel or other Office macros is that they can use the document in the same kind of way. If you're working in Excel, you don't need a file system, because you've got the spreadsheet sitting there to hold your data. Using cells for variable storage lets you use the same kinds of tricks that programmers in C might play with memory pointers--but you can see the memory updated right in front of you, stop execution, and dig through the current state of things. In the piece above, if I'm seeing things right, the programmer's even using the math capabilities of the spreadsheet itself, so that the program relies on the recalculated values of individual cells.

I guess I still think that's pretty cool, that a spreadsheet with a few extra lines of code can run its own contents, blurring the lines between a human-readable document and a program.

March 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»audiosurf

Dethroned

From Audiosurf via e-mail:

Audiosurf scoreboard alert - Dethroned! You used to have the worldwide best score for: from blown speakers by the new pornographers

Now the Audiosurf player 'Pookums' has beaten you. Get back in the game and reclaim the top spot!

Was that fifteen minutes up already?

February 11, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order

Rough estimate of time spent with ridiculously-overpunctuated FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: 5 hours.

Time required to delete local content: About three minutes.

There is, apparently, a niche for post-apocalyptic shooters featuring inaccurate weapons, a practically-vertical difficulty curve, and no hand-holding whatsoever. Unfortunately, I'm not in it.

On the other hand, I enjoy the title of this post enough that it alone might have been worth the $20.

Stalker's other saving grace is that it reminded me to go back and find an abandonware copy of the classic Wasteland. I never made it very far in Wasteland, but it always sticks in my head as having what might have been one of the coolest fusions of copy-protection and storytelling ever made: the manual included 162 paragraphs of in-game text, which would be referenced by number during the game. Using the manual as a verification code was an old trick even by 1989, but incorporating it into the narrative was pretty slick (not to mention that it saved on space). To add to the fun, buried in the 162 paragraphs were several fakes, existing only to mess with cheaters and readers who couldn't help skimming ahead.

20. The Premacorin Mural is a work of art which you have only heard rumors about. It records all human history in one vast display of gaudy colors. At the beginning of the display you see the image of Charles Darwin walking arm-in-arm with an ape in a wedding dress. Next to that you see a youthful Egyptian pharaoh in mummy wrappings and a gold mask dancing on the stage of a place called (according to the neon lights behind him) Radio City Museum of Unnatural History. Proceeding along, you see a masked man brandishing silver six-shooters on the back of a silver Tyrannosaurus, hot on the trail of a mustachioed man wearing a swastika. A fat man in a red uniform with white trim flies through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight F-19 Stealth bombers. He has bags full of guns, ammo and bombs, which he is freely dropping down to King Arthur and his knights so they can battle Genghis Khan and the Yellow Peril. Yet further on a man in a green and gold uniform (with the number 12 emblazoned on it and a 'G' on the helmet) has just thrown a missile to a man vanishing in the white glow of an atomic mushroom cloud. Finally, at the far end of the wall, you see the ape in its tattered wedding dress, squatting and studying the fire-blackened helmet.
There's even very short parody (I think) of the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Princess of Mars" stories buried in there. My favorite paragraph is #145:
145. This paragraph can be reached from no place in the whole adventure. We know who you are, and we will get you for reading this paragraph. Expect it most when you expect it least.

February 5, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»no_more_heroes

The Garden of Madness

No More Heroes is weird. And that is the understatement of 2008 thus far. But I love it, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, NMH almost exactly walks the fine line between the completist impulse and the time-budget of adult gamers. For example, there are basketballs hidden all over the game, which (when you take them to an abusive Russian drunk) grant special abilities inspired by the assassin team from Killer 7. There are 49 of these balls hidden around the overworld map. This sounds like the kind of thing that normally drives me nuts: the need to compulsively collect a bunch of random junk in order to be rewarded.

But it turns out that there's a cheap gadget that you can buy from Naomi, the beam-katana engineer, which makes all hidden items appear on the map. And once you've got it, collecting all the basketballs takes only about an hour, if that. So you still get the warm feeling of having gotten all the stupid secret options, without all the wasted time.

A lot of NMH does exactly this: it cons you into thinking that you're doing a lot more work than you're actually doing. The trappings of the visual design evoke 8-bit games, but more than that Grasshopper shows a keen insight into gaming conventions. It's not at all afraid to parody them--the entire overworld map is definitely a joke at the expense of GTA, but it's not the quicksand that many have made it out to be: once you realize that the motorcycle boost (triggered by the Z button) is completely recharged by powersliding (tilt the wiimote and press B), the city takes practically no time to navigate at all.

Now I am one of the few people who seem to have played significant chunks of Killer7, Grasshopper's previous console title, and actually enjoyed some of it. I enjoyed it more in abstract--the convoluted story fascinated me in a Twin Peaks kind of way, but the actual gameplay was just actively hostile to players, in part because at base level it relied on overused puzzle tasks for its challenge. Likewise, I tried to play Contact on DS, but it's basically a weird little RPG wrapped around incredibly boring MMO-style grinding. No thanks. No More Heroes does what neither of these games managed to do: underneath the weirdness and the self-referentiality, it's still fun to play. The wiimote slash, for example, starts off feeling gratuitous, but actually adds a visceral bit of activity to each combo.

The second thing I love about the game, honestly, is the complete and utter lunacy of it all. The looks that I got from Belle just from listening to the speeches--like the insane ranting of Dr. Peace about his estranged family--were priceless. And yet there are moments of pathos, like the death of Holly Summers, that are genuinely a little touching. Not to mention the final boss, which involves a delivery of six or seven plot cliches in a row, followed by denial of those cliches, followed by their re-affirmation in a hilariously self-aware monologue sequence. It's one long double-take.

And then you realize, in the end, that none of it really mattered. It was just so much fun to watch. Ninety percent of NHM is spent wondering "how are they going to screw with me now?" The fact that you don't have to worry about how painful that will be is what makes it possible to keep playing. The combination of the two illustrates that the studio behind these games might have finally learned how to make its high-concept narrative ideas into actual entertainment.

January 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»deus_ex

We Will Lead Them into the Day

Nine reasons why Invisible War is better than the original Deus Ex:

  1. Door Number 3 - For all of its depth and open-world conceit, Deus Ex had the moral ambiguity of a Giuliani campaign ad. MJ12 are the bad guys, you're a good guy, that's the end of it. Invisible War's factions may be a cliche of technocrat vs. religious zealot, morphing into more generic order vs. chaos, but at least they're all viable options. And it milks that ambiguity for all it's worth, which has the effect of giving the game a wider perspective.
  2. Hints from Helios - The AI, oh heavens above, the AI. Enemies in Deus Ex had three animations, and its approach to any situation was to spastically flicker through them. Yet somehow, any action taken by the player would immediately alert them to your location, even if you subsequently moved. For the sequel, the AI still possesses ESP powers, but only for its supernatural hearing. Other than that, they're more realistically stupid.
  3. The Peashooter 9000 - Remember when you picked up a machine gun in Deus Ex, and felt like you could take take out a few guards? Me neither. Most of the guns had the heft and lethality of a gin-soaked papercut, and JC reloaded with glacial speed. Maybe it's because they didn't mean the game to technically be a "shooter." In that case, I would suggest that they make the not-shooting parts of the game less blindingly dull. Which brings us to...
  4. The Six Gazillion Dollar Man - Augmentations in Deus Ex would have been a lot more fun if most of them weren't completely useless, or if you had any real hint as to what they'd do before you installed them. I think the problem is that they thought "how can we solve these specific gameplay-related strategies," and not "how can we make the player feel like an unstoppable ninja cyborg?" Speaking personally, I tend to forgive holes in the former if the latter is successful. Invisible War was criticized for its lack of augmentation options (five slots of three options each), but every single one of them does something useful.
  5. Robot Envy - So JC Denton can't aim, when he does aim it doesn't do much damage, and he never gets the ability to crush someone's head between his fingers. In that case, what's with the whining jealousy act from all the other secret agent cyborgs? You can't go thirty seconds without Hermann or Anna Navarre complaining about being made obsolete, even though they have big robot limbs and JC can't kick over a cardboard cutout without dying from the bruises. I suspect they are actually elaborately mocking him.
  6. Yeah, but check out the nano-pockets on that trenchcoat - I understand what they were trying to do with the inventory system in Deus Ex, but it's still stupid. It was stupid then, it was stupid when they reused it in System Shock 2, and (if possible) it reached maximum stupidity in Resident Evil. Look: no-one wants to geometrically rearrange their entire inventory just so they can carry an extra can of soda. If I wanted to declutter spaces for fun, I have a storage room downstairs that needs some attention. Invisible War just uses 10 multipurpose slots, which is far less realistic, but has the advantage of freeing up my time for playing the game.
  7. The fine line between dead and deadpan - I am still unclear, frankly, on the reasons that voiceovers have almost always been terrible. It's not like there are technical reasons. Deus Ex was more inconsistent than anything else, but it still had too many moments of unconvincing tell-don't-show. JC's film-noir monotone quickly grates, not to mention the incredibly unsubtle foreign accents.
  8. Walt Sent Me - Passwords in the original game were a great opportunity to insert sly references and in-jokes. They were also kind of a pain to retrieve, so I like that Invisible War just remembers and types them for you. Likewise, I don't remember the extra missions in Deus Ex being particularly fun or interesting, but I think I completed most of them in the sequel--possibly because they were dense enough that I could accomplish several in one stroke.
  9. Shmarbucks - The running joke of the warring coffee shops is not only fitting, given the presence of the WTO, but also resolves gracefully.
On the other hand, the endings from the first game certainly has Invisible War beat, perhaps due to the social theorizing taking place in the latter--the wider perspective means that they neglected giving the player a personal reward, and aimed for an ideological one instead.

October 31, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»halo

Making Waves

Although I'm what, three years too late? to complain about Halo, I'm going to do it anyway.

When the game first came out, the standard criticism of its mid-game levels was that they were too cookie-cutter in their repetition, like Bungie just copy-pasted big chunks of architecture through the game. I can see where these complaints come from, but it didn't bother me, because at least you felt like you were making progress.

Halo's biggest sin is not that the level design is a little repetitive. It's the parts in the game where the designers literally lock you into a room and then flood it with repeated waves of enemies. Having restarted the game on Legendary, I fought through a few of these, making it to the first level on the Covenant ship, before finally giving up in disgust. Belle can attest that there was a lot of cursing and shouting along the way. By the point where I gave up, there had been three such situations: one is the initial crash-landing zone, where dropships keep swooping in, followed by the elevator lift that keeps dropping enemy squads, and then finally the first room of the Truth and Reconciliation. That one was the final straw.

Halo fans tend to repeat the same two points over and over again when praising the games. First, they talk about "30 seconds of fun" to defend the fact that Halo never changes and combat never gets more complex. Second, they refer to a pyramid of weapons--firearm, grenade, and melee attack--as being the main balance of Halo. You're supposed to swap between these three options pretty much equally, I guess, and if you can't, you won't get very far. There's no allowing for another play style--I think melee combat in shooters is ridiculous, for example, so the whole "magic triangle" is pretty much ruined for me from the start.

So it's not the endless corridors that get to me. It's the fact that when Halo decides to lock you in, the only option is to fight the way that Bungie wants you to fight: close-up, with no subtlety or potential for evasion, and without any indication when they'll let you go. You're discouraged from trying new approaches, or bringing your own style to the game. In the end, I just don't like the way Bungie wants me to play.

Future - Present - Past