Thursday, September 23, 2010


I apologize in advance if this post makes less sense than usual.  I was up until 2am playing Civ V.


But first, let me get Professor Layton and the Unwound Future out of the way. 

I still have a fondness for the Professor Layton games, although it's mostly because they remind me that I own a DS, and I still have a fondness for the DS, because once upon a time it was a kickass handheld gaming machine that had tons of cool games coming out for it all the time. 

Still, though, the first Professor Layton game was charming and witty and unique, and while it may have had one (or ten) too many matchstick puzzles, it was still an enjoyable experience.  The second game was good, too, in a competent sort of way - in a way, it kinda reminds me of Bioshock 2, in that PL2 and B2 are technically better than their original games in terms of UI improvements and mechanics, and yet somehow not nearly as charming or as fun.  PL2 in particular had one of the most bat-shit crazy stories I can remember, which added to my sense of disconnection - the whole game is about solving puzzles, and yet you as the player are never given a chance to solve the fundamental mystery of the story; it seems as if it was pulled out of thin air.

This same problem is in PL3; the big reveal is completely ludicrous and borderline nonsensical, and you are never given a chance to actually figure it out for yourself - nor could you even guess, because it has literally nothing to do with anything you've already spent the last 10 hours dealing with. 

But whatever - you don't play the Professor Layton games for the story, right?  You play them for the puzzles.  And here, the puzzles are very much hit or miss, and more often than not they feel unfair, in that they're written unclearly, or misleadingly, or simply do not make any sense.  I ultimately used a walkthrough to finish the game, which makes the entire experience pointless.

And not only that, but the puzzles don't take advantage of the DS nearly as much as they ought to.  Which is odd, because sometimes they do.  Let me explain.  There are a few puzzles which are fully interactive - the one I'm thinking of in particular is where a piece of paper has been ripped up into pieces, and you need to piece them back together in order to find a secret code.  And the game lets you manipulate those pieces with the stylus - it's like a jigsaw puzzle.  Whereas there are other puzzles, featuring the same exact concept - a photograph of the end of a race has been ripped up into pieces, and you need to figure out who came in third place - but you can't manipulate the pieces.  It seems odd and unnecessarily difficult.

Here's what I'd like to see in a future PL title - I'd like the whole game to turn into a point-and-click adventure, with puzzles thrown in.  I'd like to take some ownership in how the story actually unfolds.  The puzzles don't necessarily have to make sense in the context of the story (after all, they certainly don't right now), but I'd like the whole process to be a little more involving than simply going from screen to screen and clicking on random people and getting nonsensical puzzles thrown at me.  And I'd especially like it if I, as the player, were given a genuine opportunity to solve the grand story for myself, instead of having some crazy deus ex machina do it for me.   Otherwise, why bother with a story at all, if it's never going to make any sense?


Back to Civ V.

So last night I finished my first campaign; my Roman armies were beating the shit out of France until, inevitably, they surrendered. 

My initial impression of Civ V is probably not all that relevant to the hard-core Civ fan; I was introduced to the series through Civ Rev, which I promptly fell in love with and played on both the 360 and the DS.  Shortly thereafter, Steam probably had a sale on Civ IV, and I played with that for a bit, though eventually I fell back to the Civ Rev version.

Civ V is, to my noob eyes, a perfect mashup of the two.  It's got insanely deep systems and tech trees and whatnot, but it's also incredibly approachable and accessible and you don't have to micro-manage if you don't want to.  It took me about 70 turns to realize that I could automate my workers, which, looking back, was the right time for me to figure that out - that was around the point where the game started to evolve from simply settling and developing cities into building units and wonders and technologies.  I didn't start the game with a desired outcome; I simply built my empire as big as I could, keeping all of my bases covered - in fact, if anything, I eventually decided I'd get a cultural victory - but I soon realized that I was miles and miles ahead of France, which was the only empire left on the continent, and I could probably just send a few rocket artillery units over and raze their cities without too much fuss, and that's exactly what ended up happening. 

It is, indeed, a time suck.  I haven't stayed up that late on a school night in years, and it certainly wasn't my intention to do so.  I figured I'd play up until the 1400s or so and then come back to it later, but soon "one more turn" turned into "well, let's just finish this particular Wonder", and that turned into "OK, let's build some rockets," and ultimately Paris fell, and I rejoiced in my victory, and then fell dead asleep.

Monday, September 20, 2010

You can guess where this is going

Knights of Columbus, this is going to be difficult.

I am currently a beta tester for an upcoming, big-deal product that will be launching later this year.  I'm not entirely sure how I was able to secure that gig, but I'm not complaining; it's as close as I will most likely ever get to being in the videogame industry, and so I'm taking it pretty seriously.

Now, you can imagine that something this big-deal would come with a strict NDA, and you'd be right.  That hasn't stopped other people from uploading YouTube videos, of course, but - as I said earlier - I'm taking this pretty seriously, and so I've been biting my tongue.

Even so, there's only so much of this silence that I can take. 

Can you bear with me?  Can you muster enough patience to get through this with me?

Then know this:  it's not perfect, but it's actually pretty neat. 


I've listened to a bunch of gaming podcasts regarding ________, and read any number of "hands-on" previews, and they all generally say the same thing:  ________ is not for the hard-core.  These previewers make no bones about their negative bias going in, and nothing they see convinces them otherwise.  (It's perhaps a little unfortunate that the enthusiast press is so clearly lacking in objectivity, but it's not like this is the first time that this kind of thing has happened.)  The larger issue, though, is that they all seem to miss the point:  ________ is not a product that was ever intended for the hard-core.  ________ is meant to get the non-gamer involved.

Of course, the problem is convincing a non-gamer to buy this thing in the first place.  I would imagine that a lot of ________'s sales are going to be from people like me - we'll buy it so that our wives and children and other non-gaming friends will get involved and enjoy it.  And so I recognize the angle that the press is taking here - is there enough value in ________ to justify a purchase in the first place?  Will there be any residual enjoyment after the non-gamer in the household is finished?   Can it ever appeal to the hard-core crowd?   

Lest we get sidetracked here into an unnecessary discussion of what exactly constitutes "hard-core", let me answer the more relevant questions:  Yes, it works (although it's not yet perfect), and yes, it's fun (but mostly when the game itself is fun, too).  And yes, the non-gamers who have come over to the apartment have been gob-smacked, which is probably the reaction that the makers of ________ were hoping for.

The most recent update to the ________ software includes one of the titles that got my wife's immediate attention when we watched some of this year's E3 coverage, and that's the one that we ended up showing off to our guests this weekend.  And they loved it.  They even loved just messing around with it, in between actual games - they loved seeing a 1-to-1 reaction between themselves and their avatars.  They loved seeing how, when my wife and I moved back into the playing area, ________ recognized us and changed our on-screen appearances accordingly.  It's the best thing to use ________ by a long shot, and it's the one that really shows off ________'s potential, even if it's ultimately just a really good-looking proof-of-concept showpiece.  The biggest downside to the ________ software so far is the tendency towards laggy sensitivity, but this specific game seems to have conquered that problem.  It's breathtaking.

And there's more to ________ than the software.  I'm not really at liberty to explain just what kind of testing I did yesterday, but there were hints that the ________ interface will work with various components and applications on the master machine, which would be pretty neat.  (It's more than a little ironic, actually - part of the appeal of ________ is its whole "get off the couch" nature, and yet some of the non-gaming functionality actually ends up meaning that you can stay on the couch, and not even have to press any buttons.)

Hmm.  I'm sure that I've said a lot more than I'm allowed to say, so I'll stop, even though there's a lot more that I want to talk about.  The short version, though, is that it's got some serious potential, and I'm very curious to see what happens next.


The title of this blog is "Shouts from the Couch," but I've not been particularly angry lately.  In fact, if anything, the title now feels like it comes from a lazy couch potato who requires immediate assistance in reaching the bowl of onion dip that lies just out of arm's reach.

Speaking of reach, I finished the Halo Reach campaign on Friday, and have now officially dipped my toes into the sordid world of multiplayer.  And as much as it hurts me to admit, I must say:  I am enjoying the mulitplayer immensely.  I've even won a few matches!  (Only a few.)  I'm never going to be very good at Halo; indeed, most of the time I'm just barely competent.  But they've got so much to do in there that it borders on the absurd.  Most importantly, their matchmaking search criteria is fantastic this time around; I've only played 12 matches thus far, but I've yet to run into any racist assholes, and for the most part I've never felt like I was playing with people a million times better than me - which is to say that I've got noone to blame for my failure besides myself.  Which is just the way I like it.  And the new Points system is a fantastic incentive to keep playing, which is odd, considering that the only thing you can do with your accumulated points is to buy purely cosmetic changes to your armor, which you can't even see.

I think my problem with the Halo franchise is that because I've never been interested in the multiplayer, I've really only been able to base my opinion on each product on the strength of its campaign, and let's face it - their campaigns are all pretty stupid.  Reach is certainly paced well enough, and the enemy A.I. is quite devious at times and there are lots of memorable set pieces, but by and large the story is forgettable, the characters are interchangeable and hard to root for, and I frequently lost track of why I was going from point A to point B.  There's almost no backtracking in Reach, at least, so chalk that one up as a small victory. 

And it definitely looks good.  Great, even.  Definitely the best-looking Halo game yet.  But it's definitely not the best-looking game on the 360, not by a long shot.  It's not necessarily a knock - it doesn't look bad - but there's a reason why everyone licenses the Unreal engine, and why nobody licenses the Halo engine.

It's almost a shame that Civ V comes out tomorrow; I'd really like to keep playing Halo.  And that's something I'd never think I'd ever say.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

pardon the cobwebs

I would say that there's no excuse for the absence of posting here over the last month, but that's not entirely true - there are several valid excuses I could come up with, and I'm sure I could make up a bunch as well. 

But here's the deal:  the last entry here talks about my failure at Starcraft 2.  Since then, here's what I've played:
  • Madden 11.  I've always been one of those long-embittered 2KSports football fans who hated Madden and EA and everything it stood for.  But Madden won, of course, and if you have a serious jones for videogame football, it's Madden or bust.  And, as it happened, I started getting inexplicably excited for football season to start, and this year's Madden got good reviews, and I had some credit on Amazon that was burning a hole in my virtual wallet, and so there it is.  I've played about 10 or 11 games in my Franchise, which is set on Rookie difficulty, mostly so that I could get all the Achievements I cared to get as quickly as possible.  FUN FACT:  It is almost impossible to get the "Return 2 kicks for TDs with the same guy" Achievement on Rookie difficulty, because the opposing team is so terrible that they almost always go 4 and out, and you're lucky if you get to return just one kick - the one that leads off a half.
  • Lara Croft & the Guardian of Light.  It's pretty good for what it is, and I imagine it would be a ton of fun if the online co-op ever got turned on.  Unfortunately, I think I've played all I'm ever going to play of this one, because now that Halo Reach is out I'm not sure that anyone will care enough to go back to this. 
  • Mafia 2.  I actually did prepare a blog post for this; I had taken a sick day right after it arrived from Gamefly and accidentally/inadvertently finished the whole game in about 10 hours.  Here's what I can salvage:

Sometimes you can tell, just from the first 5 minutes of play, if a game was cared about in development.  After all, in today's ADD world, where developers have the balls to charge you to participate in a "beta", 5 minutes might just be all you get, and so it's probably a good idea to put your best foot forward (while still keeping the big guns for later in the experience).  Sometimes it's painfully obvious - the frame rate might be shitty, or the controls might be clunky and unresponsive.  Or, perhaps, it's just that certain areas of the game received more attention than others - sure, things explode pretty good, but the dialog and the voice acting both feel like first drafts; or, the driving model is responsive, but the combat sucks.

Mafia 2 was cared about.

But that doesn't make it a great game.

I was out sick yesterday, and I convalesced by playing the entirety of Mafia 2 (and, also, something else that I am not at liberty to discuss, wink wink nudge nudge).  And when I was going to sleep, I started thinking about how I would write about it, and I had this really well-written opening paragraph all set out, which was going to reference both this Joystiq article about how venerable games industry analyst Michael Pachter thought that Mafia 2 would probably be unprofitable, and this very well-written Rock Paper Shotgun review, which (among other things) made the salient observation that comparing Mafia 2 to GTA4 totally misses the point, and how Mafia 2 really needs to be compared to Mafia 1.

  •  Anyway, yeah, there wasn't much to talk about after I finished Mafia 2.  It is a bland experience in an otherwise beautiful world.
  • Professor Layton & the Unwound Future.  This just arrived in the mail on Monday, and... it really bums me out that I don't like these games anymore.  And the reason why I don't like these games anymore is because the puzzles, i.e. the reason why this game exists in the first place, have a tendency to be poorly written.  They can be unfairly difficult.  Or, most egregiously, they can only be solved with a walkthrough, and even then, the explanation for a puzzle's solution is obtuse or unclear.  The story is interesting, though, at least.
  • Mass Effect 2: Shadow Broker DLC.  This is kind of a big deal, if you're a Mass Effect nerd.  The nuts and bolts of the DLC are pretty much just more combat, with a cool little vehicular chase scene (with the requisite shitty controls); so in that regard it's nothing special.  But from a story perspective... wow.  The ending of the DLC seems to be a pretty big deal, in terms of the ME universe, and yet the fact that a lot of ME2 fans might not see it would indicate that it won't really have that big an impact on ME3, which is kind of a bummer.  Anyway - if you're an ME2 fan, it's highly recommended.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I got excited for the sequel and decided to give this another playthrough.  And it's still as good as it was the first time.
And that brings us to yesterday, when my copy of Halo Reach arrived.

I'll have more to say on Halo as I get further into it, but basically:  it's Halo.  And, also:  I don't know if I like first-person shooters anymore.  Or, rather, that the third-person action genre has gotten so good that first-person shooters kinda feel a little antiquated.  As in:  how come I can't use cover?