Monday, July 26, 2010

The Summer Collection

Getting a late start with my three summer choices...but here I go!


If you download and begin to play Limbo without reading the tagline ‘Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo’ you might be as lost as someone in, well, Limbo. The game opens in a gorgeously rendered forest. Awash in layers of watercolor grayscale, the foreground is fuzzy with vague shapes and the background alludes to a grandiose and unending world of shadows and light. A silhouette of a young boy with glowing white eyes awakens amongst the sharp blades of grass and waits for you to lead him on his journey.

Unlike other games, this one gives you almost no information, only allusion and action. You assume from the tagline that there is a little sister at the end of this journey, but that remains uncertain and almost irrelevant throughout the game, only nudging you here and there with an emotional reason to continue playing. The real game is winding through the gauntlet of Limbo, which aims to tear you apart at every turn. At its heart, Limbo is a puzzle platformer-you solve mechanical riddles by pushing crates or pulling pieces of the environment in place before you are allowed to progress. And the setting is a study in contrasts, which makes it all the more terrifying to navigate. Limbo is beautiful and understated, with glowing fireflies and butterflies occasionally fluttering about. But it is also horrifying. There are many living creatures in Limbo, but the game does not want you to connect with them at all, they are merely tools to advance. One of the first puzzles you encounter asks you to use a bear trap to trick a large spider into splicing off it’s own feet. Later in the game you surprise a mosquito nibbling on corpse by jumping on its legs to elevate you onto a higher platform. As you land you pull off one of its legs and it lies on the ground, twitching, while the mosquito tries to fly away haltingly. There is no mercy or compassion in Limbo, only action and progression.

Midway through Limbo you encounter other silhouettes who are assumedly the residents of this bleak world. They lack the same glowing eyes as you, only blank, dark faces that aim to kill. I got the sense that their existence had deteriorated into a kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’ tribe, where outsiders are untrustworthy and deemed instant enemies who must be eliminated. I concluded that their lack of glowing eyes meant they had no goal-maybe they were once like our little protagonist, with a mission to save someone or escape, but they left that behind long ago, lost their focus and the light faded away. Just like the other living creatures in Limbo, these shadow figures become tools, corpse platforms to use in water to prevent drowning or something to toss onto a switch to keep it activated. No remorse, only action.

And Limbo is so quiet. The game contains the sounds that one would expect if the ‘music’ was removed and only the environmental noises remained. Walking through the forest elicits nothing but a slight shuffle of grass or the buzz of a swarm of flies. Most of the time you are straining to hear if anything is coming from the speakers. Which makes it all the more terrifying when suddenly there is so much noise it almost overwhelms you-a saw blade spins menacingly above your head, and the growl is overpowering-many times I was so engrossed in the game that I didn’t even realize the noise had reached a blaring crescendo and would need to turn the volume down because it added so much to the intensity it was almost too much to bear. Noise = Death.

I think Limbo is one of the most fascinating games I have played in awhile. Its simplicity allowed me to create lavish ideas about what was going on even if the game gave no indication that it was even thinking about itself in any sort of imaginative way. Limbo contains everything, yet nothing. There are trees and glowing signs, houses and smoking chimneys, yet there is also the absence of color and life. You are only given the tools you need to use to progress, nothing more. It makes the game simple to the point of poignancy, where you desperately want just one glimpse of this absent little sister in order to make you believe that it can’t just be nothing-there has to be something or else the journey is meaningless. And the road is so hard-I can’t even tell you how many times I led this poor little boy to his untimely death. Probably in the hundreds. Platforming is not really my forte, so I dropped him onto spikes, drowned him, electrocuted him, fed him to spiders, crushed him underneath doors and threw him into sawblades over and over again. But it wasn’t sad-this is Limbo, after all. He was merely a tool-I made it to the end, so it must have been his fate.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In the News...

My life as a PC gamer has been incredibly short-lived, limited to FFVII, Dungeon Keeper and a little bit of House of the Dead 2 in 1998. I am not very keyboard friendly-I think I will still be stubbornly clutching a controller in my hand if motion controlled gaming becomes the norm (God forbid). So needless to say there have been a ton of PC exclusive games that passed me by over the years. One of them was American McGee’s Alice. When I was in my early twenties I acquired some gothtastic tendencies and started hanging out with a crowd who absolutely adored Alice. No surprise there-the entire game is a twisted fairy tale set in a horror themed Wonderland. And I have to admit that my media interests tend to lean towards the darker and spookier sides as well, so I was always very curious about the Alice phenomena. I never pursued the PC game, however, so I am delighted to hear that they have announced the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, will be available on the 360 next year. Here are a couple of screen shots that I acquired from the official website:

This quote makes me wish I could play it right now:

"Alice is a classic fiction, infinitely rich with memorable characters, places and experiences. Our approach to Alice: Madness Returns takes this colorful world and reinvents it with psychotic personalities and pervasive insanity," said American McGee, Spicy Horse Games Co-Founder and Senior Creative Director. "We can't wait to share our vision with Alice in Wonderland fans and gamers around the world."

Added to List: 2011 Must-Plays

Monday, July 19, 2010

Weekend in Review Pt. 3

My pre-weekend was spent knee deep in DeathSpank, Ron Gilbert’s newest RPG adventure available on XBLA. I started playing the game last Thursday evening, stopped to sleep for approximately 7 hours, delved back in Friday morning and reached 100% by 3:30pm. Needless to say, this hilarious little game is addictive. I first saw DS at PAXPrime09 at a booth in the Expo Hall. I remember conversing with the representative about when/where the game would be available and he remained vague and mysterious on the details. I ended up keeping the ‘business card’ promo for the game in my wallet so I wouldn't forget about it.

The main character, DeathSpank, is a hero, or as he calls himself, a “Vanquisher of Evil”. And as a hero he declares it his duty to do heroic acts including saving a bunch of kidnapped orphans from getting into the hands of Lord Prong, the villain and keeper of the ‘Artifact’-a purple thong. Between rainbow, um, waste left behind by unicorns and outhouse transport devices, DS is one of the most absurd and adorable games I have played in awhile. One of the highlights is the dialogue, as most of the conversations between our hero and the NPCs are quite witty and tongue in cheek. I would like to call it smart, but it’s really kind of eye-rolling with one-liners. Not in a bad way, however, it is definitely part of its charm. The overworld map is completely interconnected (no lengthy area to area load times) and absolutely gorgeous-the colors and animation are incredibly well designed for an arcade game. The bulk of the gameplay is side quests-I would say about 65% of the game lies off the main path. I imagine if you ignored all of the NPC requests to collect guts, wood, or Keep on Truckin’ posters you could finish the game quickly, but the majority of the fun lies in the side quests. If you are looking for a highly entertaining experience with the same kind of cutesy humor last seen in Castle Crashers, DeathSpank is worth the $15 price tag.

I have been desperately trying to love the Left 4 Dead campaigns Matt has been helping me with in the past couple of weeks, but I am mostly finding it to be an anxious experience. I appreciate that there is a separate musical score for the hierarchy of zombies, but it really only helps me so much when I'm suddenly snatched from behind by a giant tongue and dragged into the woods. Then my heart starts racing and I feel guilty about making one of my teammates save me from the Smoker….again. God only knows how horrible I would feel if I were playing with strangers online-especially those who have been replaying the same five campaigns for going on two years now. I find that an Assault Rifle is my best friend through this journey because it allows me to panic and shoot in random directions with a fairly high success rate. I got caught in some sort of menu bug during the first campaign and had to run towards the helicopter while only able to see half the screen, which was a little more intense than I normally like my gaming, but we did make it-even if we abandoned two of our gang to the hungry zombies. Hey, they should’ve hustled-we couldn’t wait forever. What? You say we should’ve gone back for them? Um, did I mention there were zombies? Yeah, everyone for themselves.

Two big PAXPrime announcements were made last weekend as well. The first declaring that the 3-Day Passes had officially sold out 50 days prior to the event. I have to admit that I got really excited about this one. Not only does this mean that we are getting closer to P-Day, but also that this giant community of gamers has spoken again and boy is our voice loud. I love skimming through the Official Forums and seeing all of the threads that involve the internal network of PAX communities-the Cookie Brigade, the cross-country travel groups, the Pin Traders, the Assassins…the list could go on and on. PAX brings so many people together in a such a positive way-I get a little emotional when I really consider all of the elements of the convention that make it so great.

The second announcement was that they have expanded (again) and this time the Main Theatre will be several blocks away inside Beneroya Hall. I have mixed feelings about this change. On one hand, I really love the idea of using such a beautiful space for our convention and being able to sit down for the concerts due to the arrangement within the hall (hey, I’m old-my days of gripping the front of the stage in wonder are over). But I also like to come and go as I please, and having a satellite site for some of the lectures and panels sounds fairly inconvenient for a casual audience member. I am optimistic that it will work well, however (nothing could possibly be worse than the Main Theater/Queue Room arrangement during PAXEast), especially since this change allows even more attendees to experience the PAX phenomena.

Monday, July 12, 2010

DLC Mania Pt. 3

With the formal announcement of the Dragon Age sequel stimulating discussion all last week, Bioware picked the perfect time to release the next of the Origins DLC, Leliana’s Song. I am not sure if this will be the last of the bunch (how much content is built into this thing?) or if more will trickle out until early 2011 when all of the fans are introduced to Hawke, our new hero in DA2. I know that I am well stocked with DA material until then, considering I have yet to purchase Awakening (I am working on a steady increase in funds on Glyde, where I will soon acquire the epic DLC in physical disc form). It’s been especially nice to stretch out the playtime of DA considering I didn’t even start the first one until last spring when most of the DLC was already available. Leliana’s Song isn’t like the others, however, considering most of the previously released content dealt with side missions that were happening in real quest time. Instead, LS allows the player to go back in time and experience the series of events that led up to Leliana’s decision to join the Chantry.

I have to admit that I am not as familiar with Leliana’s story as I am with other characters like Zevran and Alistair. I spent a lot of time asking the boys questions specifically in order to build intricate relationships with them without really exploring the histories of anyone else standing around the campfire. And truthfully, I found Leliana’s voice to be grating so I never fully explored a relationship with her beyond specific quest based interactions. So going into Leliana’s Song I had an almost clean slate compared to someone who may have spent a lot of time conversing with her at camp. Leliana’s Song is essentially a story of her conversion from a naughty rogue to a follower of Andraste. We find her in Denerim with a renegade group who are troublemakers of the political sort, aiming to implicate and/or assassinate key figures under cover of night. But not everyone is to be trusted and the tables turn when Leliana is betrayed, left scorned and forsaken. Ultimately it is the Chantry that comes to her rescue and aids her in finding justice, leading to her eventual role where we find her during the Blight.

While playing Leliana’s Song I found that you could really push the envelope with just how cold Leliana could be-some of the dialogue choices seemed fairly far away from the girl we spent so much time with during the main quest. Whenever I was faced with a particularly hard-hearted choice I usually rejected it in favor of a more balanced response-more along the of what was ‘right’ vs. what was ‘deserved’. I understand that people can change, but would someone so intensely focused on treating people humanely during the Blight have started out with such a passion for vengeance? Even if so, I found keeping Leliana’s moral compass somewhere near her present one more comfortable than the alternative.

I really like the idea of fleshing out some of the back stories for main party members in Dragon Age. That was one of the highlights of the game-understanding that a lot of individual factors led everyone into joining forces with you against the Blight. I know it may sound kind of sleazy, but I think I would be most interested in a back quest involving Zevran and his seemingly infinite list of debauchery in Antiva. The great thing about Zevran as a character is how his life seems almost like a circus-full of drama and flair-so the DLC could be humorous and almost satirical. Maybe I just have a soft spot for the weasely little elf as he was the only one that decided to stick with me once the Blight was over.

In a game that devotes itself almost entirely to its interpersonal relationships I find it’s always beneficial to give the player even more information about them. I am sure that knowing a bit about Leliana’s past and why she joined the Chantry will add to the experience I intend to have with her when I eventually head back into my second playthrough. Overall, though, I thought seeing Leliana as a mischief maker was definitely worth a few bucks and a couple of hours back in Ferelden-even if it didn’t add any content to the main story and ended up exactly where you thought it would.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2.5

In an article released today on Eurogamer, it appears that Ubisoft has decided to put some distance between further developments in my favorite series, Assassin’s Creed, letting the franchise incubate for awhile. Quoting Ubisoft’s Jean-Francois Boivin:

“Honestly, I think for the benefit of everybody…I believe that this license needs a breather. You can't plough a field every year. Once every three years – or once every something – you have to let it breathe. You have to let the minerals back in. You want to keep people excited. You gotta make people miss it a bit.”

As a devoted fan, I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. I am more than willing to wait until 2012 or 2013 for the next installment of the game series, especially knowing that it will set a new assassin in a place in history other than Medieval or Renaissance times. Part of the fun of AC is the setting. The designers do backdrops extremely well with their attention to detail-glittering waterfronts and exact replicas of Italy’s most famous building structures. The panoramic views alone stop my breath. I can’t wait to see which era they choose next. So allowing the Ubisoft team a few years to fully actualize another time period and back story for Desmond’s next ancestor can only improve the game that much more.

I can understand why Brotherhood is being released only a year after Ezio sprung onto the scene-it is a continuation of his story using the same basic design with the added multiplayer aspect. And Ezio is a brilliant lead, with all the characteristics of a renegade hero-family slain due to crooked politics, fighting corruption above the law while still managing to accessorize well (check out that belt buckle!) while scaling walls like Spiderman. Whereas Altair had ‘mystery’ (scant back story or charisma) in the first game, Ezio has personality. As a player, I instantly invested in Ezio far more than Altair, even if I didn’t necessarily have a preference one game over the other. I think of them as chapters in a book, with the future being the central string tying them all together. I am just as interested in eventually playing Desmond’s story as I am walking in his ancestor’s shoes.

Even though I know I will play through the single player mode in Brotherhood, I admit I would consider skipping the end of Ezio’s story because I already played that game. I don’t understand how AC2 and the subsequent DLC chapters weren’t a conclusion and I don't play multiplayer games online because I prefer AI to people (less harassment). To me it feels almost like pandering to the crowds who are currently spending all of their time in Party Mode with their friends in MW2 or RDR, as though deciding to design and release Brotherhood has almost nothing to do with the captivating book I have been reading for almost three years but everything to do with making money right now. Even Boivin says that in terms of holding another AC release:

“business can come back and override everything I say because at the end of the day it's about selling games…We have some business people that will eventually put a date and say, 'This needs to come out'. We have our creative people, who are also pushing on their end, saying, 'We need this much time to do something new and refreshing’.”

I hope the creative team wins this round, because I certainly love them far more than the men with the money. And as an utter AC fan girl, I would like to send them a message that I am willing to wait years for the next chapter in Desmond’s story, confident that the newest incarnation will be beautifully developed with care.

"[For AC3] We know exactly where we're going," Boivin said. "It would lack vision and blunt intelligence to wing it episode after episode. We have to have some vision with the story…It's the story of Desmond Miles, and it's the story of a machine called an Animus that reads genetic memories from your ancestors. It has to stay in there."

*The photos above are from a post on Kotaku displaying the latest Ezio figure by Hot Toys. Beautiful!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vacationing in Hogwarts

I have been caught in the best kind of replay cycle for the last couple of weeks. Anyone who has played a LEGO game knows that the only way to max out the experience is to play through the game at least twice (Storyline and Free Play), so I am slowly winding towards 100% on my third playthrough of the newest LEGO game, Harry Potter Years 1-4. I enjoyed both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones LEGO games, so it was no real shocker that I would like Harry Potter, but I have been literally mesmerized by the LEGO version, playing night after night since its release last week without growing tired of it. With a world so chock full of heroic and wicked characters, an elaborate magical school of mischief-making and an almost limitless supply of imagination to pull from, it isn’t too hard to see why it would be great fun to play.

Usually, though, LEGO games are a lesson in monotony. I have no problem admitting that they aren’t the most cerebrally engaging game series out there-no real thinking, mostly just breaking and collecting things. And then more breaking and collecting. But the adorable factor is always high and they are all built in honor of our most loveable franchises (I keep hoping for LEGO Back to the Future). Don’t even get me started on just how freaking cute the Rock Band version is-OMG, tiny LEGO zombies! But Harry Potter is simply the best. It takes all of the visual and interactive elements of the book series and creates a captivating world where you just can’t help but want to spend loads of time, even if that time is spent breaking flowers, collecting studs and playing each mini-level over and over again. But I think the most unique aspect of the game is the spell casting.

In all of the LEGO games each character plays a particular kind of role-some are tiny children or creatures that can crawl into hatches to retrieve items other can’t, while some have the ability to jump higher than others to grab items or collectibles. You have to learn the fine art of switching back and forth between them constantly to complete your objective. And there is certainly some of that in HP, but really only when it comes to light vs dark objects, places to dig or a small handful of other specialties (Hermoine is better at spell casting, Harry is master of the broom). Instead of acquiring characters in order to fully achieve your goal, almost all of the magical characters in HP learn spell casting through their ‘Lessons’ at Hogwarts. Because of this all of the playable ‘students’ are advancing RPG-style at the same pace, allowing you to use only a few characters during Free Play without constantly filtering back and forth between the 8-10 the computer selects for you. Plus most levels contain a cauldron full of green florescent Polyjuice Potion to help change from person to person if need be.

And the spells are fun! For example, Wingardium Leviosa/Accio is the builder spell, and all items that can interact with the spell glow purple or red (purple for good wizards, red for dark wizards). Harry waves his little LEGO wand in the air and the pieces whip around in circles until finally clicking together into shape. There are particular chests that hold unlockables that you can only acquire using Riddikulus, the spell that reduces the casters worst nightmare to its most hilarious state, leaving poor He Who Must Not Be Named swaddled on the ground with a binky in his mouth. When the caped little Dementors come to visit Hogwarts, the students learn Expecto Patronum to cast them away. And all of the spells can be easily accessed using the bumpers to pull up a ‘wheel’ as opposed to the intricate button combinations in the more serious movie tie-in games. There are even spells you can buy in Diagon Alley (the central HQ location) that give the NPC’s giant heads or different colored hairstyles. So entertaining!

I have the worst kind of OCD when it comes to the LEGO games. It becomes a personal challenge to acquire 100% even if it means repeating the same level several times. And that is exactly what I am doing. I am currently around 80.5% complete and I still have The Goblet of Fire to finish on Free Play mode. Once you are done with the ‘story’ portion you still have the gargantuan school of Hogwarts to explore with its many secret chambers and hidden hallways. Secretly, I wish I were a student there, learning the tricks of the sorcery trade, so I am really looking forward to peeking in every corner and inside every flue before calling it done. Because who needs real sunshine anyway? Then I will just quietly wait for Years 5-Deathly Hallows to be announced...