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Red, Dead Redemption

A good rule of thumb for whether or not to use a comma between adjectives is: don't, except in cases where the conjunction "and" would make sense.  Thus "I have a little white dog" but "I have a big, fat dog."

What's really at stake is which word the first adjective is modifying -- the adjective or the noun that follows.  In most cases, a comma isn't necessarily right or wrong, but it changes the meaning of the phrase:

"I have a black leather wallet."  (black leather) (wallet)  I have a wallet made out of black leather.

"I have a black, leather wallet."  (black wallet, leather wallet)  I have a wallet.  This wallet happens to be made of leather, and is colored black.

In the case of Red Dead Redemption, "red" describes "dead" as written.  That sorta makes sense -- you know you're dead when you're red dead, as this redemption is.

I think Red, Dead Redemption might have had more impact.  Now we've got a redemption that's both red AND dead.

I also would have accepted Red-Dead Redemption, Red/Dead Redemption, and Redhead Redemption.


Call Of Halo: Modern Reach

While I am by no means a Halo expert*, I do consider myself a Halo fan.  I had been looking forward to Reach since it was announced and it was the only game I’ve bought on launch day all year.

I’m also quite partial to the Call Of Duty games.  As shooters go, Call Of Duty is perhaps the Beatles to Halo’s Rolling Stones.  Or maybe it’s the other way around... fodder for another blog post.  While I certainly respect and enjoy both games, no one can love them both equally, and if I had to choose between the two, I’d pick Halo.

Aesthetically, Reach is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of visual media I’ve ever consumed.  The rich detail of the environments and the artful, mature cutscenes are Avatar-ishly mind-blowing.  Likewise, the sound design on Reach is jaw-dropping, from the beauty of its musical score to the marvelously-crafted foley cues.  Overall, Reach is a splendidly integrated piece of entertainment, consistent, immersive, emotionally engaging, impeccably detailed, well balanced and paced (although not without a few Halo-esque difficulty spikes / missing checkpoints), and generally a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Hats off, Bungie.  There need never be another Halo.

All that being said... the Modern Warfare influence is undeniable.  On paper, we all knew this was coming: the loadouts (Sprinting!?  In Halo!?), the multiplayer leveling and upgrades system, the emphasis on teamwork over Rambo-style lone wolf Master Chief tanking, etc.

At least we still get to keep our overshields, plasma grenades and gravity hammers, right? **  Perhaps it’s just fanboy resistance to progress, but I like my Halos to be Halos and my Modern Warfares to be Modern Warfares.  I understand the insecurity that pressures publishers and developers into catering to popular taste, especially on a project with the scope and box office potential of Reach’s magnitude, but... well, a guy can dream.

Personally, the most disappointing should’ve-seen-that-coming Modern Warfare-ism in Halo: Reach is the shift in the game’s overall tone.  Even at its most earnest, previous Halos never forgot who they were: escapist jaunts into a hyper-realistic (physics-wise) sci-fi world that felt limitlessly fantastic.  The tongue never completely left the cheek.  I’ve always seen Halo as the video game equivalent of Starship Troopers.  The spirit of the Halo franchise was one of derivative subject matter, delivered in a self-aware way, drawing upon familiar modern-day conventions for maximum storytelling economy.

While the storylines in Modern Warfare are arguably just as fantastic, the mood is different.  More like the most recent James Bond films.  Modern Warfare is badass in a serious way; Halo was always badass in an over-the-top way.   Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but anyone who has played through the Reach campaign must surely agree that the sense of humor is gone.  Your fellow soldiers are now courageous and respectable where they were once pathetic cowards.  The aliens are a legitimate threat to your home and way of life (see Modern Warfare) and no longer scream “Run away!!” in ridiculous cartoonish voices. Gone is Cortana’s endless string of witty remarks.  Gone are the absurd rhyming couplets of the Gravemind.  In fact, [SPOILER ALERT!] gone are the wacky, loveable zombies altogether.  (Remember when "Halo" meant "half-aliens, half-zombies game"?)

What remains, for better or worse, is a straightforward story of nobility, courage and sacrifice in the face of certain defeat.  Reach might even make you cry.  It’s a repeat of the Star Wars prequel formula -- and the lack of public outcry might just indicate that mainstream audiences are marginally more open to tragic space operas than they were a few years ago when Lucas unveiled his misunderstood prequel triptych masterpiece.

Anyways... only 2.5 more weeks to Black Ops!!!!!!!


* Although I am one of the best in the world at getting pWn’d by 12-year-olds in any given Halo multiplayer.

** Nerd-out: I love that they brought back the Combat Evolved pistol, and the new Needle Rifle is a splendid all-around with delightful long-range accuracy; but, while assassinations are cool and all, the melee is too weak for my tastes, and IMHO, the DMR is such a woefully over-nerfed Battle Rifle that it just depresses me to use it.


[Together] Review

My review of the Flash game [Together] was published last week on Greg Costikyan's website,



Warriors: Legends Of Troy (E3 Game Demo Review)

Game Name:
Warriors: Legends Of Troy (Tecmo Koei)

PS3 / 360 (I played on 360)

Action / Hack-N-Slash

Time Played:
10 minutes

Main Constructs:
Grinding, Button Mashing

One thing I LOVED about it and why:
The high concept. I had the pleasure of talking with the game's lead designer for a bit prior to playing. His concept, as pitched to me, was not only to adapt the Warriors franchise for a Western gamer audience, but also to stay as faithful as possible to Greek mythology (esp. Homer's Iliad) and history (including details like accurate late bronze-age weaponry and armor). In his words, he wanted to create a game that high school teachers might assign to their students. As a stickler for accuracy, I applaud his mentality.

One thing I LIKED about it and why:
Badass combat animations. I suppose I like this for the same reason I like a good battle scene in a film (see Braveheart and Last Of The Mohicans). I enjoy the toy-play aspect of directing sword fight choreography.

One thing I HATED about it and why:
The level design. The demo level was dull and repetitive. Run a little bit, press X a little bit, run some more, press X some more, run some more, etc.

One thing I DISLIKED about it and why:
Not being able to invert the Y-axis controls. Although I did my best to work around it, not implementing this basic feature for the demo made me feel like a discriminated-against minority.

What behaviours the main compulsion loop is encouraging:
Kill enemy soldiers. Keep an eye out for special fatalities.

What the main rewards are:
Sense of powerfulness and progress. Badass fatality animations. Immersion.

What I would change about the game:
The demo focused entirely on the game's basic constructs and fighting mechanics. While reasonably cool, these are nothing particularly ground-breaking. I believe that by directing more attention to the world, the story, the main characters, and other narrative elements, Legends of Troy might have appealed to players' imaginations and done a better job of standing out from the crowd.

The most plausible explanation for this problem is that most of the narrative-type stuff, usually understood to mean "cutscenes," isn't finished yet. Nevertheless, I believe there must be a creative solution.

What I learned from playing the game:
Don't bother showing a game at E3 unless it's ready.


Scooby Doo! And The Spooky Swamp (E3 Game Demo Review)

Game Name:
Scooby-Doo! And The Spooky Swamp (Warner Bros)


Platformer / Adventure

Time Played:
10 minutes

Main Constructs:
Platforming, Adventuring/Exploring, Puzzle-Solving, Mystery-Solving, Collecting

One thing I LOVED about it and why:
The handling. Perhaps in part because of a more static camera, the controls felt very responsive and fluid. In other Wii games, I often find myself annoyed when using the nunchuck thumbstick, and controls feel laggy or imprecise. Here, moving the character around felt comfortable rather than frustrating.

One thing I LIKED about it and why:
Interactions with objects in the world. Scooby and Shaggy's animations while interacting with such objects are entertaining. I enjoyed playing around with throwing chickens and watermelons at things.

One thing I HATED about it and why:
Couldn't find anything to hate.

One thing I DISLIKED about it and why:
I wish I had known you can swap out characters, as demonstrated in the trailer. Not sure if this feature is implemented in the demo.

What behaviours the main compulsion loop is encouraging:
Standard platformer compulsion loops: collect items, solve puzzles, progress through levels, evade or defeat enemies.

What the main rewards are:
Progress through the game. "Clues" which are pieced together to solve the overall mystery. Food for Scooby and Shaggy. Lots of fun character animation flourish rewards.

What I would change about the game:
Design-wise, the game is what it is: low-stress, cheeky, cute and clever, with a wide cross-demographic appeal. WB should make more of an effort to promote this game and its predecessor, in terms of overall promotional volume, the intended target audience, and the way the game is presented to that audience. At present, it seems relegated to the "kids' games" commodity pool. I think many people my age and older would not hesitate to buy it if they knew it existed and was worthwhile. It appeals to the same sensibility as the Lego series, which (as far as I know) is well regarded among my peer group.

What I learned from playing the game:
The games at E3 with the longest lines aren't necessarily the best ones; also, it is possible to program a Wii game that makes good use of the thumbstick.


Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (E3 Game Demo Review)

Game Name:
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft)

PS3 / 360 (I played on a PS3)

Not sure anymore (see "HATED" section)

Time Played:
20 minutes (2 matches)

Main Constructs:
Hide & Seek, Tag, Obstacle Course, Load-Outs

One thing I LOVED about it and why:
The theme and world. Technically, it's the same as AC2, although the city of Rome is a new map layout (using familiar assets), and there are new character models to control.

One thing I LIKED about it and why:
The new gate feature. When you run through certain "gates" while being pursued, they slam shut behind you, impeding your pursuer's progress. That's cool, I guess.

One thing I HATED about it and why:
Strait-jacket-like gameplay constraints. They've taken away what was the most unique and fun part of Assassin's Creed: the sandbox. The game actively discourages exploration and role-playing according to the player's unique approach to the game and preferred play style. The only real choice happens during the load-out selection screen; after that, the player must kill the target and evade the pursuer. That's it.

There's only ever one and exactly one person in the game the player is allowed to kill: the target. If you should be fortunate enough to encounter another human player who is neither your target nor your pursuer, you may not interact. There is no fighting, only assassinations. There is no option to stand and fight the person trying to kill you.

The designers have transformed an exciting, complex world of emergent gameplay into a dull, monotonous session of one-on-one tag. I suspect the developers did not actually play either of the first two games, because they have obviously missed the point entirely.

One thing I DISLIKED about it and why:

The lock-on feature. It has been nerfed to the point of uselessness. In fact, it's worse than useless -- it does more harm than good. The original system of identifying targets and locking onto them wasn't broken. Now it is.

What behaviors the main compulsion loop is encouraging:
Do exactly what you are told and you will be rewarded every two or three minutes with a few hundred points.

What the main rewards are:
Points, tallied at end of match. Fatality animations when you kill your target. Relief after successfully evading a pursuer.

What I would change about the game:
If the publisher insists on incorporating multiplayer into the Assassin's Creed franchise (not advisable, in my opinion), but doesn't want to fund a full-fledged MMO, there are several possible ways of going about it:

- Players race to assassinate a shared target or set of targets. Players can thwart each other in various ways, such as fighting one another, setting traps, stealing from each other, hiring guards / prostitutes / thieves to serve as distractions, killing NPC team-members, etc.
- Capture The Flag
- Juggernaut
- Classic Deathmatch
- Motocross-Style Obstacle Course / Collection Racing
- Demolition
- King Of The Hill
- Any of the many other multiplayer constructs designers have used over the years.

Whoever decided that this particular framework for the multiplayer version of Assassin's Creed was the best possible option should definitely be sacked.

What I learned from playing the game:
Never get your hopes up for an E3 demo. Don't stand in an hour-plus line for a game unless you have a reliable tip-off that it's awesome.


News and Entertainment

So I'm a member of the IGDA's Writers' SIG email list. (That is, an email list for the International [Video] Game Developers Association's Special Interest Group for Writers. It's basically a forum that invades your inbox every day).

Recently, an e-debate has been raging over the validity and relevance of game journalism websites/blogs. One guy thinks they're completely pointless, inane, and badly written; another guy says this is because "The priority of a games journalist, like any other journalist, is to produce something which people want to consume. That’s the harsh reality. News is an entertainment product."

Here's where I had to chime in:

The mentality that "news is merely a form of entertainment and always has been" is not only wrong, it's dangerous on multiple levels.

First, with regard to news: Freedom of information is the single most vital, most basic element of a free society. Real, truthful news is what separates us from the Fascists and the Communists. When journalists (Fox) lose sight of this, they commit a despicable evil.

Second, with regard to art: the notion of separating what's "True" from what's "entertainment" implicitly and unfairly denigrates our profession. Knowledge and wisdom come in many forms. Creative expression is no less important than factual information. A world without art is no better off than a world without news. Both news and entertainment media are (and should be) vehicles for Truth.

The idea that art /entertainment is somehow frivolous, fluff, or a luxury commodity makes me sick. If that's your attitude, please go do something else with your life, because you'll only get in the way while the rest of us are busy creating something meaningful.


Dragon Age: Origins:
Too Many Choices

I sometimes still have trouble passing myself off as a "real" gamer. I mean, I love video games, and I've been playing my whole life... but no matter how much time I spend, I never seem to get any better.  Am I doing something wrong?  Am I just too old and slow-witted to ever hope to have mad skillz?

Perhaps video games favor youth in the same way athletics do. Both make use of the same cognitive abilities -- reaction time, sensitivity, adaptive muscle memory, spatial reasoning, etc.  So maybe I suck at video games for the same reason I've always sucked at sports in general. Well, I may always get picked last, but at least I play.

Questions of physical dexterity and hand-eye coordination aside, I also wonder if it's just a matter of evolution, and the next generation of kids (and games) is simply more intelligent than I am.

I'm currently playing Dragon Age: Origins. It's mostly fun, but also tends to drive me insane. I find I spend more time browsing through radial menus than I do actually playing the game. There are just too many choices!

Take armor, for example. In World of Warcraft, it's pretty easy to tell if a piece of armor you just picked up, or are considering buying off a merchant or the auction house, is better than what you already have. You know your character pretty well, and you know what direction you want to take him or her, and can easily estimate how much the item might be worth to you.

In Dragon Age: Origins, on the other hand, you have to manage armor sets for a whole mess of characters (I have eight right now, but the list keeps growing). You have to remember which characters can wear which types of armor. You have to know which characters would benefit the most from which increases in stats. You get a bonus for matching sets of armor, but it might not be worth it depending on the relative difference between the pieces according to the game's 7-tiered, color-coded materials system.

Furthermore, all your characters can't share items out of the inventory at the same time. You can only ever have your primary character plus three others in your party, which ends up requiring multiple party swap-outs between when you buy and sell items from a vendor and when you actually equip them. And good luck finding a vendor when you need one, and good luck getting anything from vendors that's really worth a hoot (unless you pay through the nose for it), since all the good stuff gets dropped anyways.

The whole thing is completely maddening, for me at least. There are plenty of ways the game's designers could have made this process easier: to provide some kind of best-option auto-equip feature; to have an easier gauge for comparing items against one another (or, dare I say it, fewer / less-complicated stats); to allow for some way for all characters to share the inventory simultaneously, or for easier swapping of equipment; to give players a "bank" at camp where they could store excess inventory; to organize gear according to class, and filter inventory items accordingly; to further limit the range of equippable gear with some kind of minimum, etc.

What I really want is fewer options. That statement right there probably proves I'm not a "real" RPG gamer. But maybe it's not about what I want... maybe it's too late for me. Maybe my only hope is that my children might grow up to be better at assessing all of this information; either that, or that they can figure out a way not to obsess over it, set the difficulty on "Easy", and just enjoy playing the game.


On Video Game Mastery

I doubt I could really pass myself off as a true master of any game -- at least not according to Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule," which states that nobody can achieve expertise in any area without logging at least 10,000 hours of practice.

Although I haven't played them in several years, Doom and its sequels have the distinction of taking up more of my lifetime minutes than any other game. Doom encourages repeat playing and pushes players to pursue mastery in several ways:
  1. Each of its five different difficulty settings has a cooler-sounding name. Beginners were practically heckled with the two easiest settings, "I'm Too Young To Die" and "Hey, Not Too Rough." More advanced players could settle for beating the game on "Hurt Me Plenty," or strive to do it on "Ultra-Violence." Of course, "Nightmare" was completely impossible for any but the most dedicated doomer.

  2. The end-level tally screen. Upon the completion of each level, players saw their total time, percentage of enemies killed, percentage of items collected and percentage of secret areas discovered. These metrics give the curious and the motivated multiple reasons to repeat levels and perhaps specialize in a particular area (like getting 100% kills, 100% secrets, etc.). The tally screen also challenged players with a "par time" for the level, which was, of course, ludicrously brief.

  3. When exiting the game, Doom cajoles and taunts the player for "giving up." Not necessarily a foolproof method for deterring players from their decision to go do something else, but I'm sure this must have had at least some subconscious effect.

  4. Perhaps the most important motivators toward mastery in Doom are the demo videos that run in the background before the player even begins a game. The demos are extensive and showcase all of the skills/techniques a player could work at -- speed, accuracy, thoroughness, map knowledge, etc. The demos prove that mastery of the game is indeed possible and achievable by a human being. Also, as a historical note, when Doom first came out, there was no YouTube, and being able to watch and study a master at work was, as such, almost completely unprecedented.
Although Doom did have a multiplayer mode, the motivation for working toward mastery wasn't (at least, to my understanding) focused so much on building one's abilities as an online warrior as it was on hearkening back to the arcade days, when excellence was its own reward. (And having a high score you could brag about to girls, I guess.)

Perhaps the nature of the arcade-style format compelled designers to do a better job of motivating players to pursue mastery than modern console games, since even a moderate level of dedication on the player's (or players') part meant more total quarters being pumped into a machine. Of course, once a player gets over the "death hurdle," and is skilled enough to stay alive indefinitely, an arcade game suddenly becomes extremely unprofitable throughout the duration of that expert player's game.

One of the few games besides Doom I might claim to have have mastered was the NES port of the arcade classic Jackal.

Jackal was unique in that it offered a cooperative campaign mode, making practice sessions social events, and allowing two players to channel their shared desire to beat the game toward mutual motivation. We also seemed to be aware that Jackal had a definite ending, unlike other arcade games, which for all intents and purposes continue indefinitely, and for which "kill screens" my only be achieved by the most psychotic individuals.

Game developers seem to take it as axiomatic that a well-designed game will engage players indefinitely and at any skill level. Who wouldn't want to be part of a team that produces a timeless, popular, beloved, community-spawning game? A game for which true skill is not only possible, but so desirable and sought-after that playing and competing become an art form and the game is elevated into the pop culture canon as a de facto sport?

But is such a goal realistic? Is it profitable? Does it make a game more accessible? Is asking for that kind of dedication really fair to the player? There are plenty of great films, symphonies, novels, etc. without a fanatical fanbase; and, conversely, just because a work of art reaches cult status isn't necessarily an indication of its artistic merit.

Not to disparage the ideal, but I think the point I'm trying to make is that, while it may be a virtue for games to successfully allow for and encourage the pursuit of mastery, this should by no means be the only criterion by which games are judged. Off to hone my Halo $killZ...