Archive for April, 2010

The Two Brutal Legends

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2010 by lintspeed

Brutal Legend is a difficult game to comment on because in truth, there are two Brutal Legends: Brutal Legend the vision (and most of the main questline), and Brutal Legend the game. Brutal Legend is perhaps the greatest traditional expression of an artistic vision in the videogame format in recent memory. It is a unique creation in an industry that often seems content to cannibalize itself, reusing the same tired tropes and play-styles. But at the same time, the ambition of its setting is rarely matched by the content. At times the game Tim Schafer and company wanted to make is painfully obvious, while at other times, it’s obscured by drab and meaningless side-quests and main story missions that are more cutscene than interaction.

The visual approach to Brutal Legend’s world, an amalgamation of every Heavy Metal album cover in existence, is beautifully realized. I will plainly say that, even without being a devoted Metal die-hard, driving around this world of spotlights, stage scaffolding, oversized skeletons, and mythical metal beasts is a joy. The world strikes a pitch-perfect balance between parody and tribute; it expresses its unabashed, unironic adoration of heavy metal, while at the same time recognizing that it’s the sort of thing that only a twelve year-old could take absolutely seriously. It’s funny, but it’s also refreshingly sincere.

This balance of tones carries from the world into the performances, in which Jack Black, such Metal luminaries as Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford as well as videogame voice-acting mainstays, all contribute excellent performances to something that is “of” Metal as well as “about” Metal. The narrative is ostensibly about the life of the roadie in the background, but more significantly, it’s about an abiding love of music. The story, which some have criticized for losing much of its humor later into the game, is nothing special, but it’s fitting to the themes of the music it celebrates and again reflects the sincerity infused throughout the game. More than anything, Brutal Legend has heart.

Of course, it’s also damn funny. The humor rightly takes a backseat to the more serious moments as the story develops, but it never disappears entirely. Any comedy that’s interested in more than just screwball laughs does this: it lures the viewer into its world and characters with humor, but it always holds an underlying seriousness. Comedy is a nightmare the characters eventually wake up from, and Brutal Legend adheres closely to that philosophy.

The problems Brutal Legend has are in its uninspired side quests and too-short main campaign. Once can’t escape the feeling while playing that the Real-Time Strategy elements of the game are the game, and the rest is just filler. I generally avoid RTSes due to a significant lack of skill in the genre, but even I could tell that these parts were the most fully realized design in the game. To call it an RTS is an unfair reduction. The game is more akin to RTS-RPG hybrids like the all-but forgotten Sacrifice and the recent Overlord. You control your main character directly and have access to his suite of powers, including axe and guitar attacks and solos, and you use him to issue commands to your armies, which each possess their own unique abilities. You have your basic melee grunts, your ranged troops, your heavies, and eventually you get tanks, stealth troops, and one massive machine that boosts everything around it while crushing all the enemies in its path. Using the right troops in the right situation and taking advantage of unique double-team moves that become available when you unite your main character with a group of troops is the name of the game, as is scouting out the battlefield using your main character’s flying ability. It’s a smart, deep mode that constantly tasks your ability to balance the influx of fans (which dictates what units you can build) by protecting your merchandise booths, with the need to strike at the opponent’s base before they overwhelm yours. Like many RTSes, trial and error is sometimes involved in determining what the best approach to a given situation is, but I only had trouble with one battle that took me around four tries to beat, and as I’ve said before, I’m no good at RTSes.

Furthermore, as my description may have suggested, the RTS, or stage battles as they’re called, fit beautifully within the Metal world. Here you have your main character, a roadie, whose work is compared to that of a general commanding forces into battle. He stays mostly behind the scenes, dropping in to lend much needed support and then disappearing from the limelight. It’s not only the most rewarding part of the game to play, but it’s the most fitting, theme- and story-wise.

The problem lies with the rest of the game’s missions. The early story missions can be forgiven for their fairly basic hack’n’slash combat because they are designed to get the Player accustomed to control of the main character, and the hack’n’slash-style game, while not very deep, is fun and visceral enough to sustain the game for a few missions. But past a certain point in the game, there’s no reason why every mission shouldn’t involve a stage battle, except the need to fill out the game between story scenes. I don’t know whether Doublefine were rushed, or just not very confident in the game’s ability to live or die on its RTS elements. As a result, the game feels very uneven through its middle, at times threatening to become the RTS it is deep inside, but retreating at the last moment. By the climax, the game seems once more to have found its footing, abandoning everything else for a series of increasingly frenetic stage battles.

But thi is not to mention the side-quests. I’m not usually one to tear into a game for its side-quests, since they are by definition optional, but in a world as open as Brutal Legend’s, it’s a real shame that the reward for exploration are a slew of repetitive and uniformly terrible side-quests. Fortunately, they are very optional: the game’s main missions give reward enough that you can progress without doing the side-quests, albeit with a little bit of extra difficulty. But the lack of more compelling optional content does leave the massive and otherwise inspired world feeling empty.

As if there was any doubt that videogames were a valid medium for artistic expression, Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend proves that a game can be made with the same love, passion, and vision as any book, film, or painting. Every gamer ought to give Brutal Legend a try, and every aspiring game designer ought to study it closely, if only to learn how they can draw inspiration from media other than games. Brutal Legend proves (again, as if there was any doubt) that a fantasy game doesn’t have to be about orcs and elves, and that you don’t need to be a space marine to encounter some truly alien environments and have a blast.

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Ten Minutes for Glory: Desktop Dungeons

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2010 by lintspeed

I was, admittedly, a bit negative on Torchlight when I wrote about it. I’m not above the allure of lots of loot and numbers going up slowly but steadily. I’ve played far too much World of Warcraft, and the early (BioWare) Baldur’s Gate games were among my first loves. I guess I just like my RPGs to have a little more meat to their interaction than just getting better loot. Which might explain why I like Desktop Dungeons so much, even though it can be far more infuriating than Torchlight (and whatever I might feel about Torchlight, it is at worst dull–never infuriating.)

Like Torchlight, Desktop Dungeons can trace its lineage back to Rogue. Desktop Dungeons is essentially a distillation of the roguelike genre into a ten-to-twenty minute game. You pick your race, your class, and your dungeon type and you’re off into a randomly generated dungeon, which only has one level and should take only ten or so minutes to clear. Death, when it strikes, is permanent, but the typical frustration of lost progress inherent in the roguelike genre is largely avoided by how short a given dungeon is. You may lose progress with a given character, but at most you’ve lost fifteen minutes of your time.

In addition, Desktop Dungeons is all about strategy. The dungeon starts blacked-out, unexplored. Mousing over each monster shows what health the monster has, what damage it does, and any other modifiers (strikes first, take less physical damage, etc.), as well as the outcome of the next turn, should you choose to attack. Simple enough, except each each time you uncover a square of the dungeon, your character regenerates a little bit of health and mana. Once you’ve uncovered the entire dungeon, that method of regenerating health and mana is gone, and you must rely on potions to do the job. But the condition for “beating” the dungeon with a given class is to defeat the one boss monster, who will often require a good number of potions to do the trick. While monsters don’t move when you move, they will regenerate health just like you do when you uncover undiscovered squares. So you are level 3 and there are no monsters revealed on the map that are your level, but there is one level 4 monster who you might be able to beat if you use a potion: do you attack the level 4 monster, using a potion to win, or do you use up the precious resource of undiscovered squares in search of a level 3 monster, saving the potions for later? It is a difficult choice, and the “correct” choice varies greatly from class to class, situation to situation.

This decision gains even more layers as you clear the dungeon with different classes. Each time the dungeon is cleared with a new class, new items become available for purchase from randomly generated shops in a level, a new class becomes available for play, and new enemies appear in the dungeon. Mana Wraiths which appear after clearing the dungeon once will apply a “mana burn” effect on attacking which prevents you from regenerating mana by uncovering unexplored squares unless you use a mana potion to remove the effect. As a result, mana potions become that much more valuable. So each subsequent clear becomes more challenging, and the core choice of whether to search out new monsters to kill or try to defeat the ones that have already been revealed gains new dimensions. All of this agonizing is just a prelude to the biggest choice of them all: do I attack the dungeon boss now, when I think I have enough potions, or do I risk trying to kill a few more regular monsters in hopes of leveling up again and being more powerful when I face the boss? Add in the ramifications of later classes, some of which have a random chance of evading enemy attacks entirely (which isn’t always reflected in the mouse-over text) and you have a game that combines strong tactics with a will to take risks.

The one infuriating thing about Desktop Dungeons is that there are some randomly generated dungeons that simply aren’t clearable. I have had dungeons generated where my puny level one character explored as far as he could only to find that all available paths were blocked by monsters too high level to beat. It’s frustrating, but it never takes long to reach this point. It only becomes infuriating when you come *this* close to defeating the final boss with a new class, only to fail on the last attack, and then you find yourself clicking your way through an unbeatable dungeon or two before you get a chance to really try again.

Perhaps the best thing about Desktop Dungeons is it’s free. It takes ten to twenty minutes to try, though I can virtually guarantee you’ll play more. The best comparison may be that it’s Solitaire (or Free Cell, or Minesweeper) for the roguelike set. A quick, casual desktop game that rewards repeated play with new layers of complexity for the gamer that likes their click-fests to have a little more strategy.

Download it here.

What makes a game necessary?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 by lintspeed

Bioshock 2. The poster-child for the “unnecessary sequel.”  Or so it was judged from the moment its existence was even hinted at. I’ll admit to being skeptical myself. Assuming for a moment (and I think it’s a valid assumption) that any game can be necessary, what makes a game necessary? More specifically, what makes a sequel necessary?

It’s difficult to say what makes a game necessary because I’m not sure any game is truly unnecessary. Not being the target demographic of oft-reviled games like Petz: Horsez, and without playing it, I can’t say that it wouldn’t provide some basic interactive and educational enjoyment for its audience. Not being the developer, I can’t say that the game wasn’t made with a sincere concern for its audience or its subject. It might be a “bad” game by my judgment or that of many others, but a bad game is rather like a bad opinion. I think it still has its place in the dialogue. I personally tend to prefer ambitious failures, but to deem something “bad” as in “of poor quality” and to deem it unnecessary seem orders of magnitude apart. One condemns it for what it is (and as a result, necessarily allows the game to exist), the other says it has no right to exist by virtue of what it is not.

An unnecessary sequel seems like it might be a little easier to define. If you had the perfect game, a game whose mechanics were so elegant, whose narrative and themes so completely expressed, whose art, both technically and stylistically was just exactly right, whose sound design created the perfect mix of atmosphere and functional design queues, then you might say a sequel is unnecessary. But even then, I’m not so sure. Would a sequel that took some risks with this so-called “perfect” design to enliven things, that found new thematic territory to investigate, etc., be unnecessary? Even if it failed? Let’s assume the answer’s “yes.”

The first BioShock was pretty close to that perfect game for a lot of people. The world it created was “complete,” its themes and story were fully realized. I think most people who condemned BioShock 2 as an unnecessary sequel were thinking mostly in narrative (and thematic) terms. The story of the Ayn Rand-styled utopian Andrew Ryan and his downfall had been told.  The utopia itself, Rapture, was ruined. There was nothing else to see or explore. Clearly BioShock 2 was only being made for the money. As if nothing of worth was ever made for money.

But I think the backlash against the first BioShock attests that as wonderful a game as it was, it had room for improvement. The utopian themes and question of free will that dominated the first half of the game disappeared for the second, turning to a theme of family that seemed largely inconsistent with the first half. The early game made a huge point of questioning the Player’s free will (A man chooses, a slave obeys), but the later game had no answer to that question. The Player gained his freedom only to take orders from Tenenbaum just as rigidly and unquestioningly as he had taken orders from Atlas. The gunplay and use of powers had been considered clunky all along, and the Vita-chamber respawn system broke the game for many. Even the world of Rapture, divided into neatly themed separate areas, didn’t seem fully lived-in, and the question of what happened to Rapture after the game’s protagonist left was pretty open. Finally the choice to save or kill the Little Sisters was as broad as they come; the game might as well have asked at the beginning “Are you evil?” and been done with it. BioShock 2 may not have been “necessary” in the sense of “we can’t complete the story without it,” but in that case, is any Final Fantasy sequel necessary? Was there enough of the original BioShock to improve upon and ask interesting questions about? I think so.

And I believe that playing BioShock 2 justifies my belief. For one, it is a better game. It lacks the one shocking twist moment of the first, but it is more fun and more cathartic to play. It seems to assume use of the Vita-chambers on normal difficulty and is balanced around them as a tactic, rather than turning them into a cheat, and even works to create regular moments where respawning from a Vita-chamber is not advantageous. More weight is given to the decision to save or harvest the Little Sisters in the world by adding genuine challenge to the act of saving them. The Player is given more freedom in his response to other non-splicer characters in the world. And finally, while the Player still takes direction from other characters, the Player isn’t accomplishing another character’s goals for them; the Player is fighting for his own survival.

As for the world of Rapture, there are still gaping incongruities, but BioShock 2 does work hard to justify itself in telling the story of what happens to Rapture after the fall of Andrew Ryan. Of what ten years of mostly anarchy does to increasingly decayed underwater world, and of the other voices of dissent that had been suppressed under Ryan. It’s not nearly as ambitious a narrative as the first BioShock, but it retains the first game’s themes of free will and family, taking them in a different direction, and integrating both far more elegantly than the original.

Coming second, BioShock 2 will never be the revelation the first game was, but if it had been made first, I do think we’d be deriding talk of its sequel as unnecessary. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised with what BioShock 2 had to offer, and I’m going to approach BioShock 3 with an open mind.

Carrying a Torchlight For You

Posted in Uncategorized on April 2, 2010 by lintspeed

Torchlight is a strange game, given its heritage. It’s clearly a Diablo-clone, and Diablo is itself an actioned-up version of the roguelike genre. Roguelikes getting their name, of course, from the original Rogue. The primary characteristics of these games are randomly generated dungeons and loot, and a death penalty. In the truest of roguelikes, death is permanent. If you die you must make a new character and start from the beginning. Diablo is more forgiving out of necessity. You lose everything you had equipped and must make it back to your corpse(s) to recover it.

I say out of necessity because most roguelikes are turn-based. For every action a Player makes, the enemies in the dungeon also make an action. This includes moving around the dungeon. If the Player moves forward, the enemies move as well. The driving concept is that with each death you learn something more about the nearly endless types of items at your disposal and the dangers that you can face. Did you get petrified by an enemy and then starve to death because your character couldn’t move and therefore couldn’t eat? Next time you know to invest in resistances against petrifaction. Because the dungeons are often randomly generated, the act of repeating the levels remains interesting: it’s not about dungeon layout so much as it is about throwing new challenges in the Player’s path. In a more action-oriented game like Diablo, where a death might not teach the Player much at all about how to play the game (hint: keep clicking), the death penalty is naturally lighter.

Torchlight eschews pretty much everything that’s characteristically difficult about both Diablo and roguelikes. Inventory management is less of a challenge because your pet can be sent back to town to sell extra equipment while you remain in the dungeon. And at the default difficulty, the game is frankly a breeze. The goal of Torchlight is the sheer joy of seeing hundreds of enemies die in rapid succession, the feverish greedy excitement of seeing fountains of loot spring from fallen enemies, and the rapid accrual of experience. It’s mindless, it preys on perhaps the worst gamer instinct–offering the most satisfaction for the least challenge, in the form of constantly rising numbers.

Which is why I decided to try out “Hardcore Mode.” This mode sets permadeath on. And it’s a strange juxtaposition. This really easy game that encourages you to turn off your brain and just click, coupled with the knowledge that one death will be your character’s last.

My first character, Timothy the alchemist, was level 14 when he died, the consequence of my own lapse of attention. I have yet to start my second character, but I’m already daunted by the prospect of replaying as much of the game as I’ve already played. So little of the gameplay cycle changes from one level to the next, that one wonders if it really matters if you’re playing level 1 or level 14. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of playing at all? Perhaps on a harder difficulty level, hardcore mode (or the game itself, in its vanilla form) will have more teeth. But as it is, Torchlight is the gaming equivalent of junk food, or a day slumped in front of the television. It’s tasty (and diverting) at the time, but afterward, the experience feels a bit empty.

Verdict: Torchlight is more of a day trip, worth making from time to time for some light, quick fun, but not as a long-term destination.

Dragon Age, Tropico, and Ruling Badly

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2010 by lintspeed

Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening has come to a close. Defeat the last boss, and fade to ending summations of what happened to you and your companions. The last boss battle was an intense flurry of action, but frankly the ending’s an anti-climax. You get Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening less for the story, it turns out, than another chance to sink your teeth into its juicy tactical combat.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. There’s one small portion of Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening that both intrigues and frustrates me. You are placed as commander of a keep, and have to make decisions with regard to gaining the loyalty of the nobility, of the town, and of your own soldiers. You also have to make decisions as to fortifying the keep. I’ve been reading a lot of English medieval history lately, and it got me thinking. Normally when I get to these sorts of choices, I try to take the most even-handed but ultimately merciful approach. I’m a bit of a softy, but I’m also consciously trying to identify what the developers want me to do in this situation to get the best possible outcome. This time, I decided what if I was more King John than Henry V–not that Henry V was a saint. What if I tried to play as a singularly tyrannical ruler? It turns out, not much changes, and I didn’t really expect it to.

My frustration is two-fold: if I didn’t want to play that way, nothing really compelled me to consider it, other than a desire to roleplay a little differently. King John was a disastrous ruler in part because he was inept, in part because he tried to resist the pope, and in part because he faced a series of colossally expensive military defeats. Some of this was his own fault, and some of this was simply a weak man reacting to the pressures of the time and the power of being king. A better example might be Charles I. Again, personal flaws aside, he was a king faced with a Parliament that didn’t want to give him enough money to live on, so he decided to do without. He faced political and religious pressure from his wife and from the nations he was forced to make peace with in order to remain financially solvent. He ended up needing Parliament, and that ended up being his undoing.

Recently, I played Tropico 3. The premise of the game is that you rule a small generic Caribbean nation, and your goal is to stay in power as long as possible. I played the prefect democratic ruler. I never once felt like I had to resort to the more sinister tactics the game allows in order to stay in power. What was particularly striking is that I was playing it shortly after the massive earthquake obliterated what little infrastructure Haiti’s capital had. In the game, earthquakes are one of several random events that will occur from time to time. The worst that happened to my little island was that a couple of buildings were destroyed. I rebuilt them nearly instantly. There was no dealing with looters or getting medical aid to injured people, nor questions of whether to accept foreign aid.

Some of this was a problem with my approach. If I had decided that my goal was to enrich myself personally, siphoning government money off to a Swiss account, the game would’ve gotten a little hairier. But a flawed moral character is only one part, and not necessarily an essential part, to being a bad ruler. In fact, most kings who are remembered for being “pious” are also remembered for being inept. Staying in power, even in a democracy, generally requires a certain amount of ruthlessness.

I want a game that pushes me to deal with some serious dilemmas in order to stay in power, or rule well. A game that constantly tempts even the most pious of Players to make the ruthless choice in order to keep the kingdom from descending into chaos. A 4X-style game, perhaps, that instead of giving the Player godlike control over their kingdom, gives them exactly the powers of a king. A game in which those powers shift as new philosophies and technologies emerge (and in this game, technologies develop at their own rate, impacted by the king’s choice to fund certain sectors perhaps, but not chosen by the Player a la Civ). Perhaps even a game that tasks you with playing an entire lineage of kings, where each of the heirs has different traits that make it easier or harder to rule well, to balance out the Player’s natural inclination to find a way that works and stick with it. If your great king’s successor has a low charisma (for a very simple example), suddenly the deals the great king made with his nobility with ease are a greater challenge. You must decide what approach you will take to make up for this. If your ruler lacks military prowess, diplomacy with other nations takes on a whole new character, and so on.

Does a game like this exist? If so, I would very much like to play it.