Sunday, January 31, 2010

Board, Basketball, and Podcasts

We recorded the first gameshark podcast last week and it should hopefully be live early this week. I'll keep you posted. Todd had a lot of editing to do as we had some technical issues recording on Skype.

But overall it went well for our first go round.

Ashley had a basketball game yesterday and her team got mauled 22-7. They grow these girls big out in the country. It seems like every week we play a team with a 4th grader who is pushing 5'8. And I'm not exaggerating.

Did I mention that I can't wait to coach next year? After the game our coach laid into our girls about not playing good defense when we have yet to have ONE practice that taught these 3rd/4th graders exactly HOW to play defense. Not one. It's like yelling at a kid for failing a multiplication test when they have only been taught addition and subtraction. It's crazy. Our practices consist of shooting layups and boxing out invisible defenders.

So, I got Runewars in the mail last week, Fantasy Flight's new $100 big box boardgame. No one is paying $100 for it as online retailers know that won't fly, but it IS a big game.

I've read the rules and ran a quick solo run of a few turns (seasons in this game) and I think it's very interesting and we're playing it this afternoon at a friend's house. It looks like a very good 4 player 3-4 hour war/fantasy game. Sort of like if Twilight Imperium and Warrior Knights had a child and RuneBound was its crazy uncle.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ultima Lives! Except Not Really.

Spotted this piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun noting that we’re about to get a new Ultima-branded game. Unfortunately, it’s a browser-based, multiplayer strategy game. On its own merits, who knows? It could prove to be interesting. But sticking the Ultima name on it pisses me off.

Longtime readers know of my love for Ultima. Games like Ultima IV and V and the Sierra “Quest” games are what made me a PC gaming fan. Ultima VII remains an all-time favorite of mine to this day and I don't care to see the brand diminished even further with some throw-away title.

On the other hand, there's always hope that this is a flyer to see what sort of cachet the Ultima brand still has. Maybe if the game does reasonably well EA will consider resurrecting the franchise (preferably from scratch; the world does not need Ultima X). To be honest, though, I’m not sure I want them to. The time of Ultima has come and gone and it’s probably best left to fond memory.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bill's Best Boardgames of 2009

Here it is for your viewing pleasure, my favorite cardboard heroes of 2009. Just like in previous years, these games did not necessarily come out last year, but I played them for the first time last year and these are my rules -- I make em up.

10. Drakon - 3rd Edition

This simple game from Fantasy Flight involves heroes escaping from a dragon's lair. Six men enter, one man leave. It's a neat design as the board is created new each game via tiles and each tile performs a nasty little trick on the other players. Not something to play every week but a great game for young gamers as it forces you to use your noggin. And it's quick.

9. Dominion

One of the "hot" games of 2008/2009 Dominion was fantastic the first 4 or 5 times I played it. Then it started to get a tad too procedural for me. It's a cash cow, though, and most people cannot get enough of it.

8. Tales of the Arabian Nights

A reprint of an old classic, this is more of a story telling game than a strategy game, and when people play this game to "win" they are really missing the point. This is all about telling a wild adventure story. Ashley absolutely loves this. Would I play it with my adult game group a lot? Prolly not, but with Ashley it's a great, great time.

7. Richard III: The Wars of the Roses

If you read this blog with any consistency you know I love a good 2-player wargame and I also love block wargames in particular. This MIGHT be my favorite block wargame, even over Hammer of the Scots. That says a lot. I just don't get to play it often enough.

6. Galaxy Trucker

Crazy game. Basically you build a spaceship and fly it through the galaxy and hope it doesn't fall apart as it's attacked by asteroids, aliens and space pirates. That's the game. But it's a riot, and I can play it with Ashley and Mary so...bonus.

5. Small World

I have played this several times in '09 and enjoyed it quite a bit. I really like the various race/trait combos that pop up. This is a good, quick, game group game that fits great with 4 players. A Brief History of the World sort of inspired Small World and that game should arrive any day now.

4. Middle-Earth Quest

The LOTR craze will never truly DIE but it has waned since the films. And this is not the LOTR game many expected as it contains no heroes you have ever heard of and takes place in a time that has never (to my mind) been written about. But it's neat. It has some Arkham Horror elements and plays the theme to the hilt. Plus the Sauron player plays a 100% different game than the heroes. I like that. But you need to be a fan to like this, and it really helps to know the book lore, at least a little.

3. Neuroshima Hex!

I got this one late in the year and I love it. It's a battle in a tight space using unit hexes -- it takes place in this post-apocalyptic setting with 4 factions fighting it out. And man ..totally cutthroat. If you are looking for a pretty quick 2-4 player game I highly recommend this one. No dice. Now, I LIKE dice -- I play FFG stuff after all, but this one is diceless and is extremely tactical.

2. Chaos in the Old World

I love Warhammer, especially Warhammer fantasy and this game really surprised me. It's basically a Eurogame set in the Warhammer world. It's procedural but violent and not at all predictable. I'll play this whenever it's suggested -- I have played this as all four chaos gods and it plays differently depending on the god you play. A very good sign of a solid design.

1. Battlestar Galactica

A 2008 game that I didn't get to play til 2009, BSG is a game I don't get to play often enough, but every time I play it I love it more and more. It's hard to find 5 other people who want to play and you need 6 for it to shine. You need the right group -- but if you get a group of players who are into it it's hard to find a better one than this. And for the last time, Todd -- I am not a Cylon.

MLB 10 (The Show) Q&A In the Works

Just like last year, we'll be doing a Q&A with Sony regarding its flagship baseball game.

If you have any specific questions, now's the time. Email me or leave a comment. Best to use email...

Worth Reading

If you're looking for a solid and balanced viewpoint on ME2 (yet still favorable), check out the Ars Technica review. It's 100% spoiler free and very little I could argue with, although they do give the planet scanning mini-game an undeserved free pass.

Here's a snippet:

Mass Effect 2 is a reworking of the original game. It throws out much of the RPG trappings, keeps what worked, and streamlines the experience for a much more action-oriented package, all while keeping the depth and heart of the first game. This is something you'll only truly appreciate after playing the first game and seeing how the threads are woven together. The games are very different, and Bioware made a brave choice in approaching Mass Effect 2 in this way. Many fans will be upset, but after giving it a few hours you'll be able to see why the game is such a success.

This is a must-buy, and the only thing we know for sure about the third game in the trilogy is that we have no clue what we should expect. Bioware is chasing a vision, and it won't let things as silly as genre tropes or expected gameplay elements get in the way of telling their story, their way.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Impressions: Mass Effect 2

So, how good is Mass Effect 2?

Short answer: It’s very, very good.

I’ve probably got a solid 15 hours or so in on the game and there’s really nothing about it that isn’t improved from Mass Effect 1. If you like that, this is a no-brainer. If you didn’t like Mass Effect 1, that's not not necessarily a deal-breaker either. If it was just one or two things that bothered you, the inventory management, the ATV, the noxiously repetitive and inconsequential side quest, then you may find this is more your cup of tea:

- It works much better as a shooter. Use of cover and running between cover points feels great once you get the controls down. Your AI guys aren’t entirely inept, which is a big improvement (though sometimes they still make you wonder).

- The side quests, now called N7 missions, appear to not be hopelessly generic although I've only found a couple so far. (This is a huge improvement, but side quests seem difficult to find unless you're willing to travel off the beaten path for no plot reason whatsoever.)

- Characters look considerably more emotive when speaking. This wasn’t bad in ME1, but the improvement is remarkable here.

- The hacking mini-games (there are two) are more interesting and reflective of what you’re actually doing. They're not particularly difficult, though, and there's rarely much chance of failure once you get used to them.

- There is no inventory management. Just research upgrades that are applied to the whole team or specific characters (pending the equipment type you have them using). For example, you pick up weapon and armor upgrades that must then be researched.

- Researching is a mixed back. To research you need to gather minerals from planets, but you no longer have to roll your ATV over every inch of mountainous terrain to find them. Instead you scan from orbit using a sort of mini-game where you hover a sensor over every inch of the planet, looking for a blip on the sensor’s readouts to which you can fire off a probe to harvest it. It would be a much-improved and more immersive way of both finding resources and making them important if it didn’t take just as bloody long to thoroughly scan from orbit as it did to roll around in the ATV. It hasn’t been unheard of for me to dump all 30 of my ship’s probes into a planet and spend a good 10-20 straight minutes doing so. Like the ATV, it gets old quickly, but now it's even less optional because you need the minerals to get your upgrades.

If you just flat didn’t like the Mass Effect gameplay, this probably won’t change your mind. It’s still a lot of watching conversations (occasionally choosing a dialog option) squished in between shooting a ton of stuff. Really, I’d say there’s probably less overall action in this game, relative to the dialog and canned sequences.Some won’t like this balance at all, since you're not doing anything during these sequences but watching a movie play out.

Personally, I love that stuff and my biggest complaint is that I wish there were more of it when you're on your ship. More debate between crew members over actions you've taken. More opportunities to draw loyalty from your crew (or lose it). Instead NPC loyalty seems tied specifically to whether or not you complete their individual side quest and it doesn't appear that you have to pick and choose. Looks to me like you can do them all if that is your want, which means it's not so much a matter of choice and priorities as it is how much time you want to spent building up your squad.

So, I’m not convinced it’s Dragon Age good, as I think Dragon Age is, overall, a better *game* (so far), but I’ll end up playing through this more than once, no doubt. It’s got great characters and it tells its story in a compelling way. It's not as tactical as Dragon Age, but then, neither was Mass Effect 1.

***minor spoilers follow***

I have not gotten my wish for a bit more open, less guided, gameplay experience. It’s definitely a different story structure from Bioware’s other recent games. You do get the freedom to go where you will more quickly, but my experience has been that the game gives you a few places to go right off the bat, you go and do them all in whatever order you prefer, and then it launches the plot forward, giving you a new set of four or five places to go. How far out this process is stretched I don’t know as I’ve only unlocked the second “chunk” of quests so far. It’s different (and different *is* better), but at the end of the day, not really any more open than Bioware's previous games.

I did import my Big Damn Hero character from ME1 and the result has been pretty flawless. You lose your stats, but you get bonuses to things like your paragon/renegade rating, the amount of credits you start with, etc. And if these initial sessions are any indication, most of the choices you made in ME1 do carry through in some capacity. It’s not just the big stuff. The little stuff is there. Some of it I’ve seen referenced in news reports on the Citadel or even on my ship, in some cases I have direct encounters with lesser characters from the first game who do remember how I treated them (or vice-versa).

The only thing about the story itself that bugs me a bit is that there are times it feels like its forcing me in a direction I don’t want to go. In this game, you work for the morally gray (bankrupt) Cerberus Corporation. Period. There’s no telling them to go to hell. Well, you can, but you still work for them. There doesn’t seem to be any taking your ship back to the Council or the Alliance and saying, “Screw those guys. I’m back and reporting for duty.” (Unless I’ve missed something.) Granted, that would be hard to do, but the way it’s done here results in some scenes that are hard to swallow. I mean really, the Council and Alliance still aren’t willing to take my word about the Reapers? These guys are treating my character even more disrespectfully than in the first game, which is saying something. That, to me, is forced. It’s the kind of thing you get over when playing and there is a ton of great stuff to make up for it. When I encountered my character's "love interest" from the first game, for example, it was a tremendous and emotional little scene. Also, I think it's harder with a sequel like this not to have pre-conceived notions of where the story should go. It's frustrating at times when it goes in a completely opposite direction, but not remotely fatal.

I’ll write more later. It’s late and I need to sleep. If you’re on the fence, I think this is a game worth playing. It’s definitely going to be in the running for my game of the year. Also, it has Boo, the miniature giant space hamster, and how can you not love that?

Mass Effect 2 Impressions Soon

If I can manage to stay awake late enough I’ll make a point of putting up some ME2 impressions once the NDA lifts at midnight. (If I fall asleep it’ll be first thing in the morning.) I spent a good chunk of time with it this weekend and there’s a lot there worth digging into.

But until then, because I just can’t help myself, I have to mention a neat little easter egg that us *longtime* PC fans of Bioware will appreciate.

Beware. This do be a very minor clue to an entirely not plot-related spoiler. In a certain shop on the Citadel you can purchase a familiar addition for your captain’s quarters. He’s miniature. He’s giant. He squeaks. And he, “goes for the eyes!!!”

Goddam do I love Bioware’s style.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Podcast is Coming the Podcast is Coming!

Thursday we will be recording the official podcast with me, Todd, Brandon, and Danielle.

It is certain to be rough, fun, really rough, hopefully on topic -- and likely extremely rough. But you will get to hear us talk about games for an hour. How awesome is that? The plan is to post it on Monday. I think. Right, Todd?

A Scholarship Offer Has to Be Coming

Well, Ashley played another really good game yesterday, scoring 2 baskets, grabbing 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and committing 2 fouls. A full day's work. She's a little Tasmanian devil out there and other parents even starting commenting to us about how hard she plays.

I can promise you, she is nothing like this off the basketball court. Sweetest child on the planet. On the court, the ball belongs to her. This is more Mary genes, I think. This is exactly how her mom played ball in high school and into college before she blew out he knees (yes, knees)-- tough, scrappy, and physical. Seeing Ashley NOT shy away from contact is new stuff. In soccer she was not like this at ALL. But in basketball she will get on the floor for a loose ball in a heartbeat.

The genes she got from me?

She likes to shoot.

A lot.

Watching the games can be frustrating because the coaches really have no idea what they are doing. It's all good - these guys are giving up their time to these kids so I would never, ever say a word about their lack of basketball knowledge. But when you tell the kids that during a free throw that you can't go into the paint to box out for a rebound until the ball hits the rim...well...

Suffice to say we're going to coach next season.

So in the first half they had Ashley running point and calling one of their two plays. Plays that never work because it just confuses the kids and they have kids setting picks all in a mass in the lane. It's this massive logjam. The result? We had 4 points at halftime.

In the 2nd half the coaches told Ashley to just "go" and stop with the playcalling.

The result was Ashley scored 4 points, took about 10 shots, and no one else on the team saw much of the ball unless it was off a missed shot. I think the final score was 18-12.

After the 7th shot Mary looks at me and says, "She gets that ball hogging from you."

"Yeah, but mine go in."


Clearly scoring her first basket last week and two more this week has sparked something in her. So we have to work on the whole "pass when 3 guys are on you" thing. She'll get there.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pure Joy

Last week, I had a first time experience.

My 9 year old daughter Ashley, in her first year of organized basketball of any kind, scored a basket on a regulation 10 foot rim in a real youth league game. She is the defacto point guard (because she can dribble and is fast) and she drove past her defender and fired up a shot and it went in.

She had the look of pure, unfiltered joy on her face. She put her hands to her cheeks and just stood there, staring at the conquered steel rim. She then looked over into the stands, trying to find us, and when she saw us in the crowd she just started giggling, then skipped back down the court to play defense.

She had been close before. In the 2nd game of the season she intercepted a pass and dribbled down the court and missed two layups. She was devastated.

This was also the first time she had ever scored in any sport, ever. Three years of soccer -- no goals. Five games of basketball and up til now -- zippo. So when it finally happened it was like the weight of the world flew off her shoulders.

As for me, I was filled with so much happiness I could barely contain myself. I knew how much this meant to Ashley and when she scored I swelled up with emotion. It wasn't a "hey look at my kid!" type of thing. I was just thrilled for my daughter because she had been working hard at this for weeks.

As some of you know, I play basketball a few times a week. On Tuesdays I have been taking Ashley with me to get in about an hour of shooting before my 30 and over old man league starts. She gets better every week. She has this little spin move down that works on other 3rd grade girls 90% of the time. She's just so small that she needs an extra second to really get a shot off.

Physically she's a carbon copy of her mother and if you know me -- you will immediately recognize how lucky she is that:

A: She looks like my beautiful wife
B: She does not look like me. A female version of Bill -- no one wants to see that.

It's weird, because as a kid I was a gargantuan 3rd grader. Some of that was genes but a lot of that was my grandmother's biscuits and gravy. I really hoped that Ashley would get more of her mom's looks-- as believe me growing up an overweight kid is a bitch. In fact it wasn't until I was in college that I lost about 80 pounds and reached some level of acceptance with my weight. 185 is so much nicer than 265.

I did not want Ashley to go through that -- especially as a girl.

Well, she's a mighty mite. The smallest girl on the team, but the funny thing about that is she's normal, height/weight wise according to the doc. It may be just me, but kids are freaking huge today. Just plain fat. I should know. I was one. On her team pot bellies are the norm. Some of that is baby fat but some is also Cheetos.

Anyway, today Ashley plays at 3:45.

I told her I expect a triple double.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


There’s a reason why Sean Sands at Gamers With Jobs is among my very favorite writers online and articles like this are a big part of it. If you’re a parent, or you plan to be, this is mandatory reading.

More Thinking About Mass Effect 2 (What I Want to See)

It’s very possible I’ll get my review copy of Mass Effect 2 today –-I’m guessing I’ll be under NDA for details until Tuesday, however-- and after this post earlier in the week regarding how repetitive Bioware’s story structure has become, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like to see in Mass Effect 2.

It’s time for Bioware to retire the particular three-act structure they’ve been using for their last three big RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age). That structure being:

- Act 1: Start you out with a couple of introductory “levels,” where your character achieves some sort of personal status update (Jedi, Greywarden, Spectre)

- Act 2: Open the world up for the character to explore, but have four specific and self-contained points that must be completed to advance the story.

- Act 3: Once those four key points are completed, close the world back up again for the big climax and denouement (the Star Forge planet and station in KOTOR, the Conduit and return to the Citadel in ME1, and the Landsmeet and battle with the Old God in Dragon Age)

This is a very workable and successful model, don’t get me wrong, but at some point you have to do something new. Taking what we already know about ME2, here’s at least one possibility that I think would be intriguing.

At this point we know that your character, Shepard, is tasked with building a team and gathering enough intelligence to successfully deal with the game’s ultimate threat (the Reapers, presumably). There’s going to be a focused starting point that will take a good three to six hours to complete, as there has to be, but I’d like for that to be as short as possible. Open up the game world to the player as quickly as you can.

When it does open up, instead of there being three or four or five crucial plot points you have to check off to reach the third act --points A through D we’ll call them-- give us a galaxy with the full alphabet (so to speak). Give us a dozen or two different places to travel. Make each of them important in their own way, but also make each of the completely optional. Make some more impactful than others in terms of giving you what you need to succeed, but don’t tell us explicitly which locations offer the most bang for the buck. Give us clues and hints through the narrative, but make the player prioritize where to go with the time they have (my next point).

With this format in mind, the player should only have time to visit a certain number of points before venturing off to deal with the Big Bad. Not a countdown timer. I despise those. But say there’s 20 places to visit; only allow us to visit 10-15 of them before we have to go deal with the uber threat. From there, how successful you were at picking your spots over the course of the game, gathering allies and acquiring crucial intelligence, affects how easy it is to survive the finale (as Bioware has already discussed).

I would love this kind of format. Freedom and consequence, plenty of replayability, and everything you do matters without their being needless handholding. Some things may matter more than others, of course, but nothing is throw-away as was the case with most of the explorable star systems in ME1.

Will that be what we see in Mass Effect 2? Most assuredly not. Hopefully we’ll get something better than an idea I mulled over during my commute. Just so long as we get something a little different. It’s time for story structure in Bioware RPGs to take that next step.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How Not to See Avatar

Over the holidays my dad wanted to go see Avatar and thought it would be a fun thing for us to do on Christmas Eve. I agreed with his hypothesis. I also agreed with his conclusion that, for a 3D IMAX showing, it would be wise to purchase tickets online a couple days in advance, just in case. That my dad and me for you, always thinking!

Come Christmas Eve we walked in, quite early, and grabbed our tickets. As we made our way to the theater’s seating area we noticed the usher was telling people where to sit. Strange, I thought. I glanced down at our tickets. C14 and 15. That can’t be good, right? Well, if that sounds bad, it turned out to be even worse.

There were no rows A and B.

We ended up sitting front row center –probably ten feet from the screen, for an IMAX 3D movie. It was the single worst theater-viewing experience of my life, and that includes the time an uncle drove me an hour to see Secret of NIMH and the projector broke down. I’m surprised I didn’t break the chair I was pushing back on it so hard, trying to get my head an extra inch back from the screen. I can’t even say how awful I felt for my dad who paid for the tickets early, thinking we’d be in great shape. The very notion that this particular front row of seats existed at all is, quite simply, nuts. (Lesson learned: don’t ask a computer for “best available” when buying movie tickets online.)

Ah well. It’s the thought that counts and it wasn’t long before stunned disbelief and righteous indignation gave way to laughing about it. If nothing else it was still a better movie than the last one we took in (Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). But why bring this all up now, you ask? Because even from our neck-breaking vantage point I can tell you that, regardless of whatever the Golden Globe people think, there is no possible way Avatar was the year’s best drama. I haven’t seen such a bad pick since Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan for an Oscar.

Avatar is not a bad film, to be sure. Despite the viewing impediment, it’s impossible not to appreciate it on a technical and visceral level. It’s well worth seeing just on those grounds alone, and I’ve no trouble with the flick sweeping every technical award in the book. That said, the story isn’t one-tenth as innovative as the visuals. The pacing is okay, I think, but the narrative is every bit as clumsy and awkward as Titanic and, since it apes Dances with Wolves in nearly every way imaginable, it’s 100% predictable. It’s too bad because this film could have been a monumental achievement instead of one that’s just monumentally overhyped.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mass Effect 2 and Story Arcs

Last week I mentioned that I wanted to write something up about my expectations/fears regarding Mass Effect 2. Having played through three full Bioware games since October (Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and a second run-through of ME1) it’s hard not to see some of the patterns to Bioware’s game design, some good, some not so much.

The one that really stands out to me is that Bioware has really fallen in love with a specific narrative structure that drops you first into a small pool, then opens up the limits of the game world for you to explore as you choose, and then draws it back in to a very structured finale.

In ME1 it started with the combo of Eden Prime and The Citadel where you learn the basics of the gameplay and characters, become a Spectre, and are then sent out to explore the galaxy, completing four main plot lines in four different areas, before engaging in the finale. In Dragon Age it was the Origin story and Ostagar (and Lothering I suppose) where you learn about the world, become a Gray Warden, and are then released to explore Ferelden –which had four key areas to explore to advance the story- before getting to the Landsmeet and the finale. Knights of the Old Republic also has a similar progression.

So my question is, will Mass Effect 2 continue this trend? On one hand, it does work at providing the illusion of an open world where you can come and go as you please. It is, however, just an illusion, and the more you return to the well game after game, the less illusory this structure becomes.

On the other hand, what I love about Bioware is how focused they are on telling a story with their games and I think there’s an argument to be made that more freedom for the player makes focused storytelling more difficult. Still, it would be interesting to see Bioware attempt a game with a bit more freedom for the player to move and explore. At the very least I’d like to see them create a new illusion for player freedom instead of once again repeating the same formula from their past games.

GH: Van Halen Review

Last week’s post on this game pretty much says it all, but if you’ve gotta get more fuel for your Activision/Guitar Hero/Van Halen hate, then you’ll find my review of the game up at Gameshark today. The final score: A big honk’n D (which is more than it deserved).

Friday, January 15, 2010

The WGA’s Videogame Writing Award

Earlier today I noticed this article from the Escapist, which detailed the Writer’s Guild of America’s final nominees for their Videogame Writing Award. The nominees are:

- Assassin’s Creed II

- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

- Uncharted 2: Among Theives

- Wet

- X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Now, before you groan a little too much, it’s worth noting that for a writer to be nominated for this award they have to be a member of the WGA and they have to have received a writer credit for their work. That probably does disqualify some of the games one might initially think of for this award.

That said, and let it be known that I have not played a single one off these games, Wolverine? Modern Warfare 2? Wet?!?! In a year that saw Arkham Asylum and Dragon Age, I have a hard time being sold on Wet as the best written game of the year. Conversely, on reputation alone, I’ve no trouble buying into the nominations for Uncharted 2 and Assassin’s Creed II

Surely many of you played these games. How about it? Was the writing in Modern Warfare 2 really all that? And if you can successfully defend Wet’s nomination I’ll buy you a beer. (Note: You have to come to Indy first.)

Reading About Mass Effect 2

It’s been on my to-do list for the blog to write up a sort of “what I’m looking forward to/wary of in Mass Effect 2,” and I still intend to get to that before it comes out, but I was just reading Tom Chick’s interview with the game’s project director, Casey Hudson, at the Fidgit blog and an answer to one of Tom’s questions made me sit up and pay attention. (That’s actually saying something because lunch today was a little… intoxicating.)

After a question about dialog in the game and its evolution from Mass Effect 1, Casey says:

If you think about it, we started Mass Effect when Jade Empire or Knights of the Old Republic were cutting edge, where the player didn't speak. It was kind of cinematic camera angles, but not particularly sophisticated. We had to imagine how far we could go. So the writers had to really trust that we would be able to create digital actors, because we had no proof. We had no way to show it. But Mass Effect 1 proves what we can do. So when you say something to a character that hurts her feelings, and she looks at you but doesn't say anything, you can tell in her eyes that you hurt her feelings. That's a huge technological achievement. And now that the writers know that's possible, it allows them to write dialogue like you would write for a really good movie or a TV series, where you don't need to explain everything. You don't need exposition. We can rely on actors, even though they're digital performers to a large degree.

In terms of story, one of the things that I thought was always a bit too clumsy in Mass Effect (and, to a lesser extent, Dragon Age) was when characters seemed to go off on needless exposition that was already communicated through my player character’s own actions or their physical to reaction to something I said or did. This answer really nails why it was like that in the first game (a notion that had never occurred to me) and why there’s reason to think it won’t be an issue in the sequel.

I’m really starting to get excited for this game.

Be sure to check out the rest of the interview, which has plenty of other juicy tidbits.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mass Effect 1 Redux

Over the holidays, and the past couple weeks since, as prep for the upcoming release of Mass Effect 2, I started up a fresh run through of Mass Effect 1 and managed to do something I’ve not done in a long, long time – finish a RPG a second time. I also went back and read my initial review of the PC version of the game. I was a bit too easy on it. (I gave it an A-.)

Now, don’t get me wrong as I stand by the text of the review. I still really like this game. The story arc and characterization are, for my money, about as good as it gets. In some ways I enjoyed this play-through even more because I went the Renegade route with my player character, which has some fun and chilling moments that I’m not used to seeing in these games, what with my penchant for playing a Big Damn Hero character. I did, however, let the game off too lightly in terms of what it didn’t do very well.

The side quests in the game (and there are many) are really a complete and utter joke, which really isn’t permissible when you consider just how short the main plotline for the game actually is. There’s the beginning of an effort that could have made these side quests fun, especially with regards to the ethically devoid Cerberus corporation. But nothing is really ever made of it, which makes these quests just a giant loose end waiting to be resolved. (Maybe in the sequel?)

I also love the idea of a Starflight-esque romp through the galaxy, roving around planets in an ATV and collecting resources and such. But the implementation isn’t just bad, it’s a complete and utter disaster. There are what? Three or four design templates at work for planet based structures and ship-boarding actions? It’s outright lazy. And, truly, don’t get me started on the mountainous terrain. I’ve read a lot of complaints about the ATV, but really, the ATV is fine (or at least adequate). It’s the constant zig-zag terrain that is, at times, completely un-navigable, that really kills the planet roving. There were times I was ready to heave my keyboard across the room.

It’s flaws as a shooter also stood out a bit more to me this time around. I still had fun with it, but your AI teammates constantly run in front of you when you’re shooting, shoot you in the back, and get stuck on edges of walls and objects. If it weren’t so easy to survive combats on standard difficulty it would be extremely frustrating.

Beyond those elements, however, I can’t say I had any complaints. Were I scoring it again I’d be looking at a B+, maybe a B if I’m feeling grumpy. It hasn’t, much to my relief, dimmed my expectations for Mass Effect 2 one little bit. If anything, the fact that there’s now so much for Bioware to build on with this IP has only raised my expectations. Frankly, I’m betting on an even better game than Dragon Age, and you people know how irrationally I loved that game. (Speaking of which, the Return to Ostagar DLC is finally coming out today. Something for my new rogue city elf to explore! Huzzah!)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Impressions: Guitar Hero: Van Halen

For the last week I’ve been playing Guitar Hero: Van Halen. I feel sad just having to write that. The only applicable analog to that sentence would be for me to write, “For the past week I’ve been continually banging my head on my desk.” They are, more or less, synonymous activities.

And I liked Van Halen.

First of all, this is the single worst-looking Guitar Hero game I’ve ever played. That includes the PS2-exclusive Guitar Hero 1. The use of color has not been a strong suit of the franchise since Neversoft took over its development (this game, btw, is actually developed by a company called Underground Development, using Neversoft’s game engine), and like every GH game since numero tres, this game looks muted and bland. The character models, though, are just flat out ugly. Not to mention creepy. This is a budget game with a regular game’s price.

Second, the audio is in stereo only. Someone is going to have to explain to me how a game, especially a music game, published in 2009 manages to not support Dolby Digital surround sound. This is probably my biggest single beef with the game because it’s apparent in every single song you play that that the audio is not as clear or encompassing as in any other comparable game.

Third, not one track from the Sammy Hagar era? Really? Hey, I know many people hate Sammy Hagar. I’m not one of them, but whatever. I acknowledge David Lee Roth is a superior talent, but then, so was Terrell Owens in his prime and, like Owens, Roth is an ass. Also, let’s take a quick look at the scoreboard since Hagar and Van Halen parted ways:

Albums from Hagar (includes the one from Chickenfoot): 7

Albums from Van Halen: 1 (almost 12 years ago)

Now tell me who’s about making music and who’s just looking to cash in with the least amount of effort possible.

Anyway, no matter how much you might feel Van Halen is only Van Halen with monkey Roth in the lead, the band still put out four frigg’n albums with Hagar as the lead man. Ignoring the one album done with Gary Cherone in the lead is justifiable, but can anyone really argue a Van Halen-themed Guitar Hero game is complete without at least a couple tracks from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge? Nothing from 5150? Nothing from OU812? Nothing from Bala… okay, nevermind that last one. That is insanity. I can only hope it’s a contractual issue, because if it was a design decision, wow was it stupid.

Fourth, as is the case in every single one of these band-themed Guitar Hero games, the non-Van Halen tracks selected for inclusion along with the main band’s stuff almost universally makes no sense. Two words: Stacy’s Frigg’n Mom. How does that happen? How do Semi-Charmed Life and Pretty Fly (for a White Guy) happen? And can we finally retire White Wedding (as awesome as it is) and frigg’n Painkiller (as awesome as it’s not) from any future renditions of these music games? Including filler music in a band-themed game is a bad idea in principle, but in this game the practice reaches entirely new lows.

Fifth, even if you’re going to sell me on a Van Halen game with stereo sound, a game with absolutely no Hagar content, and one that includes tracks from Fountains of Wayne and Jimmy Eat World, you are, under no circumstances, selling me on a Van Halen game that features the band as it exists today. Geezer, over the hill, and without anything new or relevant to say versions of Eddie, Alex, and Roth with Eddie’s kid, Wolfgang*, on bass. The hell? Even in the lone section of the game to show the band in their prime, a six song set where three of the songs are Eddie-only solos, there he is, Wolfgang Van Halen, playing bass. Kid wasn’t even born yet. Erasing Hagar (and, I guess, Cherone) from the band’s history is bad enough, but not one trace of Michael frigg’n Anthony to boot?

Screw Eddie. Screw Alex. Screw Activision for even considering allowing something this inept and hobbled to be made in the first place. I can’t even muster the indignation to say anything bad about Underground’s development job. It’s obvious they had no budget and no freedom. There’s simply no way this is the game they wanted to make. This isn’t a game that anyone would want to make.


*Note: I’m not bagging on Wolfgang. For all I know the kid could be the best bassist of his generation. The point of my screed is that these band themed games should be a celebration of the history and times of the featured band, not something that pretends most of that history doesn’t exist. If you’re not gonna do that, then offer the tracks as DLC or something. Do not, under any circumstances, make a full-on game. Harmonix understood that when they made Beatles Rock Band.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top 5 of 2009 - #1 Dragon Age

Yeah, not a lot of mystery to that. Somewhere I still have an issue of Games for Windows Magazine (the first issue where it changed to that name instead of the old Computer Gaming World - RIP) that had Dragon Age on the cover:

That was over three years ago. I’ve been looking forward to Bioware’s return to fantasy ever since and Dragon Age, amazingly, did not disappoint. It's every single bit the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate that I wanted it to be. True, the narrative does occasionally get clumsy and yes, the world is far too restrictive (especially if you're a lover of open world RPGs like Fallout 3), but that doesn't stop this game from being an all time favorite.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or have zero interest in such things), you know Bioware has already announced the first full-on expansion for Dragon Age to be released in March: Awakening. Here’s the trailer:


Most Wanted Games of 2010

According to my staff at GameShark. Sans Todd because he's way too good to take part in such things.

Actually most of us picked the same 3-4 games anyway...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top 5 of 2009 - #2 Beatles Rock Band

I’ve spent about two hours or so this week playing Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Why? Because I’m an idiot who will play a game with zero production value for a pretty lousy review check. More on why that particular game sucks later. (It is awful. And I like(d) Van Halen.) The reason I bring it up here is that it’s such a perfect contrast as to what makes Beatles Rock Band such an incredibly wonderful game. 

A year ago I wasn’t even a Beatles fan. I didn’t dislike the Beatles. I just never bothered to give their music the time of day. Even when I picked up a copy of Abbey Road over the summer I never quite got it. It wasn’t until Beatles Rock Band came out that I really started to hear their music for the first time and from that moment forward I’ve been hooked and, really, that’s the genius of a franchise like Rock Band.

It’s not just about air guitar-esque wish fulfillment, although the way the game makes you feel like you can play to tens of thousands of screaming fans will always be cool. It’s that it allows you to appreciate music on a different level. True, all those colored bars and plastic frets don’t do a damn thing to help you learn music, but damn if they don’t affect how you hear it and your understanding of how a song is put together. It’s an incredible experience and the way the visuals of the band tie it all together by letting you see how the Beatles evolved over their all-too-brief career not only makes this game shine in its own right but it also directs a big middle finger at Activision for their inability to do anything remotely as cool as this with their pedestrian (at best) band-themed Guitar Hero games.

Boardgame Awards

Michael's 2009 awards are up today. I have played some of those this year -- Chaos in the Old World is a worthy game, no doubt. And Space Hulk is gold.

As usual I will post my 2009 Boardgames to Play with Your Kid(s) shortly, awaiting approval from Ashley.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bill's Top 5 for 2009

Left 4 Dead I and II
Red Faction Guerrilla
Batman Arkham Asylum
Dragon Age (on the PC)
Beatles Rock Band

Done and done.

Todd's Thunder Stolen: Complete.

Top 5 of 2009 - #3 Left 4 Dead

When jotting down my list I originally wrote this as Left 4 Dead 1 simply because that’s the one I spent, quite literally, the entire year playing. It occurs to me, however, that both Left 4 Dead and its sequel are pretty much the same game, so why not lump them together? This is a conclusion a third grader –admittedly, one with negligent parents- comes to faster than I have, but whatever.

If you go purely by play time, it’s possible this game should be at the top of the list. Played, on average, about once a week for about three hours at a time. Let’s see… that’s 52 x 3. Is it sad my first instinct was to load up Windows Calculator to figure out that bit of math? Probably. Regardless, that’s in the ballpark of 156 hours of 2009 spent slaying the zombie hoard and I don’t consider any of it wasted time because it was all spent playing the game co-op with friends. Time spent in shared activity with friends is never wasted.

All together now…


Right. Anyway. The whole notion of zombies may fast be becoming an overused method of letting you commit mass murder without the guilt, but good is good and dammit, there is no better zombie survival series than Left 4 Dead. The eight player versus mode is more fun than anyone has a right to and even though I have my reservations about the setting, characters, and gameplay balance of the sequel, it’s not like I’m going back to play the first one anytime soon. This is a series with legs (often dismembered) and I look forward to another year of semi-weekly zombie genocide.

Speaking of which, Bill, it’s been like 504 hours since I last put a bullet in a zombie’s brainpan. That needs to be remedied.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Top 5 of 2009 - #4 Knights of the Old Republic

What? Just because it took six years for me to finally play and finish this game makes it no less chock full of awesome. Anyway, if you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time you know Bioware pretty much always has me at hello when they release an RPG and KOTOR was no exception. The fact that I was able to get it off of Steam last October for a mere $10? That’s just gravy because this game is nigh impossible to find at retail anymore, even on the PC.

I’ve written it before, but seriously, how is it that Bioware gets Star Wars so much more than its own creator. I know Lucas has become the icon for a creator run amok, but I mean really, how? How can a bunch of guys up in Edmonton come up with the story in this game while Lucas, and all the resources his name entails, comes up with Attack of the Clones?


Anyway, at its heart KOTOR is a story about redemption, which is really the theme at the heart of all of Star Wars. The fact that it takes place a few thousand years before the films frees it from a lot of baggage, but credit where it’s do because I’m pretty sure I caught more than one reference to events and characters from the old Dark Horse comic series-es(?) –just how does one pluralize that word to mean multiple series?- Tales of the Jedi, which was itself some great stuff (if memory serves; it’s been awhile).

The fact that the game is six years old does mean the game comes with baggage. It’s clearly designed with the original Xbox in mind, and all the graphical –uh- wonderfulness that entails, but it does play just fine on the PC and on modern operating systems. (I was on Vista at the time.) The storytelling is, at times, trite, but if you’ve a sentimental bone in your body it’ll hook you when it has to.

The RPG ruleset is based on D&D 3.0 so there’s plenty of number crunching going on in the background for the pen & paper nerds (of which I am one – a little). The force powers –the ones I tried- all work in the context of the gameplay and dammit, it’s just so frigg’n cool to dual wield a pair of lightsabers. If you’re an RPG player who let this one pass by, do yourself a favor and pick it up off of Steam. Yeah, it’s dated, but it’s still pretty damn great.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Top 5 of 2009 - #5 NHL ‘10

Yeah, I know. Yet another in an endless series of end of year “best of” posts. You’ll just have to deal with it because I’ve pledged to myself to blog more this year and that means writing on topics I’d normally pass over because they’re boring as shit. ;) 

Anyway, my top 5 list is unique (but not really) because it’s the top 5 games I've actually played in 2009, which doesn’t necessarily mean games that were released in 2009. You see what’s going on? I can claim not to be cliché because I’ve added a twist!

If only twists weren’t so cliché.


So here we go with #5. The rest should follow on a daily basis. (Yes, I’m using this as an excuse to fill up five day’s worth of posting. Just because I’m pledging to blog more doesn’t mean I won’t find new ways to be lazy about it)

#5 NHL ‘10

In 2006, following years of incompetent neglect, the NHL series really started to improve. NHL 2007 wasn’t all that, but if memory serves, it was the first to start using the right analog stick for shooting, which was revolutionary in terms of hockey games, and it did add some other nice improvements to the gameplay. Like the 2009 iteration of the Detroit Lions, there was really nowhere to go but up and NHL 2007 did just that. NHL 2008, which I reviewed, was a considerable improvement over the previous edition. I skipped 2009, but I dug back in with ‘10 and there’s just no way to conclude that in term of on-ice gameplay it’s anything but the single best NHL video game ever done.

I think one of the hardest things to reflect in sports games is the variable nature of the games they depict. Good teams need to win more than they lose, but the results of most games played should always be in doubt, and that’s not even factoring in the hugely variable skill of the individual player. NHL ‘10 dances on that line as well as any sports game I’ve played, both in terms of letting the user find a difficulty and style of gameplay that fits them and in making sure every game feels unique. I love it. The only real downside, and it is significant, is that the franchise mode is just awful, but I’ll take what I can get from a console sports game.

I was enjoying NHL ‘10 so much during the fall that I attempted something I’ve not accomplished with a sports game since Bases Loaded on the NES when I was a kid (football games excepted), which is to manually play out a single full season. Yes, that project was doomed to failure and lasted just over a month, but I blame Dragon Age. In fact everything in my life that didn’t get done last November –vacuuming, laundry, feeding my kids something other than PEZ- is pretty much Dragon Age’s fault. Nonetheless, I was having a shitload of fun with NHL and will probably go back to it as the winter doldrums officially set in.