Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rock Band: Beatles

The big news this morning is of the new Beatles music game, currently slated for a Holiday 2009 release.
During a teleconference being held by Apple Corps, Ltd and MTV this morning, the two companies, along with Harmonix, announced an exclusive partnership to create a brand new video game featuring the music of the Beatles. This seems to be a new game that will allow friends and families to experience the music of the band in an all new way.

Other than a brief mention of Rock Band during the teleconference, so far no mention has been made of the band's songs coming to Rock Band or Rock Band 2. In fact, Harmonix's Alex Rigopolis stated during the call that this is not a Rock Band expansion pack, but an all-new game title built from the ground up.

The game will be a journey that will take you through the entire Beatles catalog, from the first album to the last. There will be an interactive music performance involved using music controller peripherals, but they stress that the game is not a Rock Band title. Visual exploration of the Beatles will be a big part of the game, though they were not prepared to discuss more on that at this time.

I've got a lot to say about music games, most of which I've probably already said a million times before. I've been playing music since I was about 3; my parents were both musicians and I can't really remember not playing music. (My parents were classical musicians, though, and so they had a pretty big influence over the music I listened to when I grew up; they weren't very keen on rock music. One thing we could all agree on, however, was The Beatles, and how awesome they were.)

Anyway. My point is that, as an actual musician, the Guitar Hero / Rock Band games don't necessarily appeal to me; I already have real guitars, and my personal aesthetic when it comes to music is not on shredding ability but songcraft and arrangement. What I liked about Guitar Hero 2 (my first dabbling in this genre) was the song selection, and specifically how they deconstructed the guitar parts so you could really get inside the part and see how it interacted with the song as a whole. And on the flipside, my biggest frustration with Guitar Hero 3 (well, one of many) was that I would fail songs (on Medium difficulty) that I could actually play, on a real guitar; the emphasis was on shredding, not on feeling like you were part of a band. (The other big frustration were the boss battles, which were totally fucking ridiculous. If I were actually on a stage and engaged in a real guitar duel, and my opponent came over and detuned my guitar while I was playing, or futzed around with my amp, I would punch my opponent in the face and then take their guitar and break it over their head.)

I've never played Rock Band 1 or 2, mostly because (a) I don't really feel like I need to, and (b) they're expensive and I don't necessarily have the real estate in my apartment to house them. But I've certainly wanted to play them; the RB games have a far better selection of songs than the post-Harmonix Guitar Hero games do, in my opinion, and from my perspective, song selection is pretty much the most important issue in this genre.

Which is why a Harmonix-produced Beatles game is so fascinating to me. I know the Beatles catalog pretty much inside and out - well, certainly for everything from Rubber Soul onwards - and none of those songs are terribly difficult to play; George was not a shredder, and Ringo was, well, Ringo. So the appeal of playing a Beatles-themed music game can't be about racking up zillions of points; instead, the appeal is that almost everybody has an intrinsic knowledge of at least a few Beatles songs, and that being able to play them - being able to get inside of them, subconsciously absorbing how the songs are constructed and arranged - is an experience that, until now, not many people have ever really thought about besides music nerds.

My biggest question, then, is what they're going to do about the keyboards and crazy sounds. Once the Beatles started smoking pot, going to India, and hanging out with Bob Dylan, everything changed, and I mean everything; they stopped writing catchy pop songs and instead starting breaking down boundaries that nobody had even conceived before. How are you going to play "Hey Jude" or "Let it Be" without a piano? Better yet, how are you going to play "A Day in the Life" without an orchestra? Or "I Am the Walrus" without inhaling a sheet of LSD? Will there be a George Martin mini-game, where you have to build all sorts of crazy shit in order to capture the sounds that John Lennon wants to be able to hear when you're trying to play "Tomorrow Never Knows"?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fallout 3 / Fable 2 / Saints Row 2

I don't know if I qualify as a full-fledged agoraphobe, or if I'm simply someone who really enjoys staying at home, but the end result is that I don't get out very much, and I almost never go out late. Which is why I was surprised as anyone that I found myself leaving my apartment at 11:15pm on Monday to go wait in line for the midnight release of Fallout 3. As it happens, I knew I was going to be taking a mental health day yesterday, and the line (such as it was) was pretty small, and I was home by 12:30.

As for the game itself; well, that's a tough one. I've played for maybe 2 hours; I got out of the Vault, made my way to Megaton, talked to some people, made some choices, ran out of obvious things to do in Megaton and decided to find my way towards another city for a sidequest I'd picked up, and got jacked by some raiders, and then my game froze up as I lay dying. And I thought about it for a minute, and decided that maybe I should just roll a new character and start from scratch, since I wasn't terribly excited about the choices I'd made.

Normally, whenever I play any game that features a morality system, I pretty much always choose to play a good guy on my first time through, and that's generally pretty satisfying; certainly it makes being a bad guy that much more satisfying, when you already know what you're going to deprive other people of. But Fallout 3 is different than these other games; the game itself takes place in a pretty ugly world, and I think I'd rather try to out-ugly the ugliness, so that if I were to play it again as a good guy, I could better appreciate my efforts.

In any event, as I said before, the game froze up, and since I was staying home all day (and let me tell you, it was an absolutely perfect day to stay inside all day playing videogames), I figured that was as good a point as any to take a break and get back into Fable 2 (and then, later, Saints Row 2).

As I said the other day, and as I've said in emails to friends who've also played it, Fable 2 has some pretty glaring technical issues and shortcomings that are hard to ignore; and yet the more I play of it, the more I enjoy it. Sure, the story is pretty much boilerplate, but I've grown to appreciate how the world changes based on my actions; the combat is simplistic but effective and quite fun; the sidequests and jobs are kinda meh but you can never complain that there isn't anything to do. In fact, I've been kinda neglecting the main quest so that I can better explore the world and see all there is to see. My biggest problem right now is that my dog is so good at finding treasure that I find myself constantly stopping and going in a different direction to dig up whatever its found.

(Re: the dog. I understand what Peter Molyneux was saying about how he wanted people to fall in love with their dog; you want to care for it, you want to keep it happy, you feel genuine pangs of concern when you finish a big fight and you see it whimpering and limping. It's just that I actually have 2 tiny dogs, who I really do genuinely love, and who are so tiny that they can both sit on my lap and not get in the way of my controller, and my Fable dog is just never going to be able to compete with that. She is genuinely charming and fun, though, and I do like to praise her whenever I dig up something awesome.)

The other thing about Fable is that it's actually pretty easy. I'm probably a little more than halfway through the game but my dude is pretty goddamned powerful; the first house I bought has a Health Regeneration perk which is pretty friggin' handy, and I've got a very robust supply of potions and healthy foods of which to partake in. I've only been knocked out once, and that was during the 2nd boss battle, and the equipment I had been given during that sequence was much worse than what I'd already been working with in before that. With the right augments, I've been able to generate extra XP with every kill, and I'm pretty close to being fully maxed out in almost everything. I'm pretty sure I've already gotten the most powerful weapons in the game, too, which is maybe a little disappointing but not that much of a big deal; killing dudes is killing dudes, and I've got no problem killing dudes quickly. I've got a nice little thing going right now; I'll launch a level 5 Shock which renders everybody totally frozen and fucked up and then I'll quickly finish them off with my Master Cleaver. Again: simple, but effective, and scooping up XP orbs is always satisfying.

And after getting to a logical stopping point, I put in my neglected copy of Saints Row 2. (BTW - I am utterly unable to type Saints Row correctly; it always comes out as Saints Roy, which makes no sense.) Man, that game is FUN. It's the anti-GTA4; GTA4 was serious and moody and dark and awesome, and SR2 is totally fucking insane. (It's also VERY stingy with Achievements, but it's a credit to how much fun that game is that I'm still playing it and not really caring that much; I've been playing for almost 8 hours and I've only got 5 points to show for it.) And I maintain that for all its faults, it still does certain things better than GTA does, the most important being not having a death penalty. If you die during a mission, you can immediately restart it - sometimes with a checkpoint - and you don't lose any money or ammo. WHICH IS HUGE, because you'll die a lot. I was hoping to finish up the Ronin storyline last night, and near the end of the story arc, there's a firefight that is absolutely insane; hundreds of Ronin are flying in from all over the place, and I'm totally outgunned, and for a while I was getting killed before I even knew what was happening. But being able to immediately retry it again was 1000 times more satisfying than waking up near a hospital, losing money and guns, and having to get back to the mission starting point.

It has its problems, though, and the biggest one is that there are almost no parked cars anywhere, which SUCKS. When you finish a mission, you re-enter the game world where the mission stopped and you are almost always without a vehicle, and the game usually takes about 10-20 seconds before it starts generating jackable vehicles; moreover, your default running speed is SLOW and your turbo running speed only lasts for about 10 seconds, so getting around on foot is a PAIN in the ASS.

But if you can get past that, and the fact that it doesn't really look that great, it's one hell of a fun time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fable 2 / Saints Row 2 / A brief meditation on Tim Schaffer

If I were forced by some unseen, uncaring editorial hand to describe my initial impressions of Fable 2 in only one word, I think that word would be: sluggish. But I would also have to then try to say that it feels a bit unfinished, specifically in terms of the audio, which constantly feels like it's going in and out and is either too quiet or is flailing about trying to catch up to the on-screen action. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the graphics aren't really that impressive; the art direction is superb, as always, but it doesn't necessarily feel all that removed from last-gen's Fable I. And yet, here's the thing; I ended up playing it until WAY past my bedtime last night, and I had non-stop Fable-y dreams right up until my alarm clock went off this morning.

But back to the sluggish thing. This is kind of a big deal, and it may end up being a deal-breaker if the game's story doesn't end up being all that interesting. Your hero character's default walking speed is just a bit too slow, which means you have to press A to run everywhere, which feels unnecessary and cumbersome. Engaging in dialogues with NPCs is tricky, too - it takes the game a while to catch up to what's happening on screen. The dynamic "objective trail" is especially laggy at random intervals, which means it's distracting instead of helpful.

And yet, as I said above: I was still strangely captivated by it all, and I'm eager to get back into it. I'm playing as a good guy (as I pretty much always do during my first go-round in one of these morality-based RPGs), and I'm sure I'll want to play it again as a bastard when I'm done.

Just the other day, I was reading this Kotaku thing where Peter Molyneux compared Fable 2 to Oblivion:
Well, Oblivion was a fantastic achievement. But for me, that was a true 'blood and guts' RPG. There was an initial dungeon that you went through that was fantastic — but then you came out into that open world, and I just thought: "What the hell do you do now? Where do you go? Who am I? What do I stand for? Who am I against?" And there was this huge, vast rolling story. And to finish Oblivion would take sixty or seventy hours.

...So in Fable 2, the story lasts thirteen to fourteen hours and by the end of that story what you are like, what you look like and how the world treats you is completely up to you. If you want to be evil or good or kind or cruel, then that's totally up to you. With Oblivion it was basically all about me killing things.

...In Oblivion you were just a hero. You couldn't do anything else, other than be a hero. In Fable 2 if you want to be a gigolo and go out and chat up everybody in the world, and have three wives (or 'one in every port') and have sex all over the place, then fine! Of course, you will have consequences to that. You might pick up a social disease.

Interesting points, all. But I'll also say this: it's certainly true that you can do all those things in Fable 2, but they're not necessarily fun, and the truth of the matter is that Fable 2's user interface is incredibly clunky and, as mentioned before, sluggish. The social interaction thingy takes just enough time to load when you hit RB to be somewhat annoying, so instead of farting or showing off or giving a thumbs-up, I kinda just want to go to the next objective. What I found so captivating about Oblivion is that I really could do whatever I want, and the gameworld itself was incredibly immersive. Fable 2, on the other hand, is constantly reminding you of all the things you can do in it; it's telling you pretty much incessantly that you're playing a game, which absolutely suspends your disbelief.


Meanwhile, I'm also in the middle of enjoying Saints Row 2, which also suffers a bit from a lack of polish but is still fun as hell. It too reminds you that you're playing a game, but this is actually kinda refreshing. Where GTA4 was serious as all hell, SR2 is completely insane.

Here's the main thing about SR2 that I love. In GTA4 - as with all GTA games - I feel a sense of pressure to play the game correctly. It's true that you can do all sorts of crazy things, but when I'm going through the single-player campaign I feel obligated to not get too ahead of myself; I stick to the story, and I don't really do all the side missions until I've finished the story. In SR2, on the other hand, the penalties for dying and fucking up are much less severe, and you can save at any point, which means there's considerably less pressure to do something wrong. I've hardly touched the main story in SR2; I'm instead doing lots of the side stuff and the activities. The city of Stillwater is still somewhat related to the one in the first game, geographically speaking; every once in a while I'll turn a corner and realize that I sorta know where I am, which is actually kinda cool.

Still, though, it is a bit rough around the edges. Not nearly as bad as Mercs 2 in that regard, but it's still noticeable. The driving model is a bit stiff; the graphics are a bit ugly; the "Insurance Fraud" minigame, which was one of my favorite bits in the first game, feels broken somehow in this one, or maybe I'm just not doing it right (which doesn't make sense) - I seem to be only making money when I launch myself out of a car, and when I hurl myself in front of oncoming traffic, nothing happens.

I'm not sure how I'm going to playing either SR2 or Fable 2 when the juggernaut that is Fallout 3 hits next week (alongside a newly delayed Little Big Planet). And I also downloaded the Portal thing on XBLA this morning, even though I've already beaten it on 2 different platforms. AND I've got Dead Space on loan from Gamefly (quick impressions: Bioshock, but more startling and less interesting).


My brief meditation on Tim Schaffer is not even really a meditation, but more of a comparison. I was thinking this morning about the developmental hell that Brutal Legend is apparently in, again, at least in terms of securing a publisher, and I remembered reading a quote from someone at EA about how Tim Schaffer's games constitute "creative risk", and while creative risk isn't inherently a bad thing, it's still risky, and a lot of publishers are not interested in taking on risk. And it occured to me that what's happening to Tim Schaffer is very, very, almost eerily similar to what Terry Gilliam's career has been like. Both are incredibly talented, visionary pioneers in their field; both experienced great success early in their careers as part of a larger creative ensemble; both struck out on their own and made critically lauded works of art that failed to resonate with consumers beyond a core group of diehard fans. And, as we see today, both have a very difficult time getting their work out to the public these days - Gilliam has trouble securing funding, Schaffer has trouble securing publishing - and as a result, both of these geniuses have had a limited creative output as a result. It's maddening and frustrating; I'm a huge fan of both of these guys, and I'm powerless to help them.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Game Design by Committee: You're Doing It Wrong, Especially If You're Not Doing It At All

I played the shit out of Portal; I bought it as part of the Orange Box on the 360 and, because my wife was in the TV room with friends when it came out, I ended up downloading it through Steam as well. I'm not necessarily a genius with it; I've gotten through a few of the challenge maps, but I my main pleasure in playing Portal is simply playing through the single-player campaign and absorbing the storytelling, atmosphere, and humor.

Portal's single-player campaign could arguably be the best single-player campaign ever, and one of the reasons why is because it's incredibly well designed. Its focus is razor-sharp; it does a fantastic job of teaching you how to play, so much so that you're not necessarily aware of it; the puzzles are challenging but never unfair; and the payoff - the final level - is absolutely brilliant. Up until the final level, you've been in very clinical environments, being hand-held throughout the game, and then - suddenly - you are seeing things you've never seen before and you now have to improvise your way out of your situation, because the stakes have been raised.

The commentary tracks in the game do a great job of explaining how all this came to be, and I recall being somewhat shocked about how much playtesting Valve does; they do playtesting pretty much on every single day in development, to make sure that everything makes sense and - most importantly - that everything is fun. I was shocked because I generally hate that sort of approach. You can spot it immediately in other art forms - movies, in particular, suffer rather horribly when they are influenced by too many cooks who don't know what they're doing. I felt that the amount of playtesting Valve was doing was somehow wrong, that at some point you need to have the original vision of the game come through without being diluted by so many opinions on such a moment-to-moment basis. That Portal turned out to be one of the best games I've ever played specifically because of this incessant testing seemed irrelevant; I felt like the creative vision of the game was being diluted.

I bring this up because I had been eagerly antipating the recently released Portal: Prelude single player mod, and the first thing that became clear to me - indeed, in the very first level - is that the reason why playtesting is so important is because it works, and I am unsure if anyone tested Prelude besides the actual people who built the game, if at all. Prelude is everything that Portal is not - it's not funny, it's unfair, and it's not fun.

Case in point. In order to solve Level 2 (!), you need to crouch as you fall through a portal, which grants you better momentum. Keeping in mind that crouching is something you NEVER do in Portal - indeed, I was unaware that there was even a crouch button in the original Portal - I would never have gotten past the level had I not looked online for a walkthrough. The ONLY way to solve Level 2 is by crouching, which is information that I didn't know I needed.

And what makes this incredibly unfair is that Prelude doesn't even tell you that crouching is beneficial, or that it even exists, until Level 3. That I had to cheat in order to figure this out, this early in the game, was incredibly disappointing. I'm currently stuck in Level 4 and even after watching a video of the puzzle getting solved, I don't really give a shit about finishing it - the solution is totally counter-intuitive and requires a degree of specificity that could only have come about from someone who already knew the answer.

I don't hate challenging games; I hate games that are challenging only because they're unfair. If the developers of Prelude had simply gotten 5 volunteers to play the game, at least 3 of them would have gotten stuck where I got stuck in Level 2 - indeed, they probably would've gotten stuck in Level 1, which I'm still not sure how I survived. They would see that the player didn't understand what to do, and then - if they were smart - they would have tweaked the puzzle to make it a little more intuitive, without necessarily making it less difficult.

Prelude is a free download, so the only thing you're losing is hard drive space. But you may also experience the crushing sadness of false hopes being destroyed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

DN3D; Sonic DS; SH:H

It's been even longer since my last post than that one was in relation to the one preceding it, so I won't bother apologizing. Suffice it to say, I've been pretty busy lately and there hasn't been a whole lot of gaming going on, and that particular trend looks to continue for the next few weeks; considering the bevy of big titles that are about to be released (Fable 2, Fallout 3, and LittleBigPlanet, to name but 3), I am more than a little curious how I'm going to be able to do anything at all.

So, then, let me get to it:

Duke Nukem 3D is one of my all-time favorites, and I am ever-so-pleased to see that after all this time, it still holds up. Obviously the graphics are dated, but whatever - the level design is still fresh, the carnage is still, er, carnal, the weapons are still awesome and the one-liners still put smiles on my face. There's a lot to be said for the retro-irony factor of playing old games again on new systems, but here's the thing - DN3D is actually still fun. And I'm not even talking about multiplayer, which is something I never did back then nor am I doing now - the single-player campaign is fucking AWESOME. I'll say this right now - if DNF was simply a remodelling of DN3D in the Unreal Engine, it would probably still be better than whatever it is they've been working on for the last 12 years, and it would also probably be one of the most fun FPSs going.

Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood is something I picked up on Friday, the day before a weekend trip to Columbus, Ohio for a wedding. I had originally intended to rent it, and then I read the IGN review which kinda tore it apart somewhat convincingly, and I removed it from my Gamefly queue; then I read some other reviews which were a bit more upbeat, and since I was in a state of post-anxiety relief and release (I'd bought a suit for this wedding, and in the week between buying it and actually picking it up I'd somehow remembered it as being this gaudy, tacky monstrosity, and when I finally picked it up it instead turned out to be a rather nice suit), I figured, well, why the hell not. ANYWAY. I've put a few hours into it, most of my party is around level 6 or 7 (I think) and I've pretty much gotten the hang of how the mechanics work, and I have to say - it's pretty fun. It's somewhat easy, which is fine, and the story is pretty simplistic for a BioWare game - but, again, this is a Sonic game - who the hell cares? The battle system is engaging and utilizes the DS touchscreen quite nicely. There's not a tremendous amount of exploration to be done, but what's there is fine. A solid, engaging title that will certainly keep you occupied on a plane.

I've only put maybe 20 minutes into Silent Hill: Homecoming which had arrived in the mail while we were away, so I'm not really ready to talk about it. Having only actually played Silent Hill 4 (which was kinda meh), I'm not a fanboy; indeed, I only decided to pick it up because a friend of mine at work has been talking about wanting to play it for the last month or so, and I figured I'd give it a shot. It is creepy, but not scary, and to be honest, some of the attempts at creepiness are a little lame and cliched; solitary ghost children drawing pictures in delapidated, monster-infested buildings is something that's been around in the genre FOREVER. The game just kinda throws you into the story without explaining who you are and why you're there; maybe if I were more knowledgeable about the franchise it would mean something more to me, because right now I'm just a dude with a flashlight in an abandoned mental hospital taking orders from some whiny brat.