Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween-The Big Prank

I know a lot of us have movies or television specials we watch during a particular time of year to help spice up the season, but what about video games? With a lot of companies releasing new content geared towards Halloween for games that I don't play (TF2, Minecraft, RDR), I had to dig a little deeper to find one that I could delve into that would bring the spooky holiday and gaming together. And then I remembered something...a small but pretty significant sequence called The Big Prank in Bully: The Scholarship Edition.

Bully is one of my all time favorites. I am not usually too big on the sandbox genre, as I find the world of GTA and its newer carnations, such as Mafia or Godfather, a little monotonous. But Bully truly captured my heart. The juvenile wink at its adult predecessors was masterful. And the Halloween mission, The Big Prank, visualizes the awkward time as a teenager when you become a bit too old for trick-or-treating and turn to naughty but harmless pranks in order to celebrate the holiday. The mission is available fairly soon in the game so you don't have to play very long to activate it. And the rolling tips on the loading screens warn you that The Big Prank is coming up and that it's possible to sleep through it if the player isn't careful-and it's the only mission in the game that you can't repeat.

The Big Prank teams you up with Gary, another bully on the Bulworth campus. Whereas Jimmy's bully status comes from a refusal to become part of the hierarchy of underlings at school, Gary is a little more conniving and manipulative with his bullying. Jimmy is more muscle, where Gary is more brains. Even Jimmy falls prey to Gary's coercion tactics when Gary convinces him that on Halloween night they should play a wicked little trick on the gym teacher. The boys sneak out of their dorm room in costume (skeleton outfit acquired), rough up a prep, bag up some dog poo and head to Mr. Burton's house to leave him a surprise. Being a rebellious teenager has never looked so fun.

Whether it's killing zombie cowboys in RDR or trick-or-treating in Costume Quest, I wish everyone a spooktacular and safe holiday this year. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Halloween Dreams: Costume Quest

If I have one complaint about Double Fine’s newest XBLA release, Costume Quest, it’s that I can’t pack my bags and live there. It’s been awhile since I have been so utterly captivated by a game simply because of its very existence, but Costume Quest has met and exceeded my expectations tenfold. All right, now that I have uttered such an eyebrow raising statement, let me confess that Halloween is my favorite holiday. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to purchase decorations for my apartment that incorporate pumpkins, ghosts, bats and other Halloween related trimmings that can be kept up year round without looking too garish (making a note here: huge success). When I try to narrow down why I love it so much I start envisioning the thrill of being a child in the fall-playing in the piles of fallen leaves that have turned orange and red in the newly brisk autumn weather and returning back to school just in time to decorate the classroom with gauzy spiderwebs and orange construction paper jack-o-lanterns. Feeling the thrill of choosing the perfect costume and the anticipation of watching the Great Pumpkin and Garfield’s Halloween special on television while picturing visions of trick-or-treating and the giant haul of candy, candy, candy just on the horizon. There was always something delightfully spooky in the air when the sun started to go down just in time for dinner and the wind started whistling through the now bare trees as the weather changed. THIS is why as an adult I still love Halloween-I can still feel all of these emotions even though I am no longer in school, no longer trick-or-treating and no longer seeing the world through the innocence of a child. And THIS is why I loved playing Costume Quest so much. It brought all of the nostalgia of being a child into the world of my adult gamer self-the self that is willing to constantly suspend disbelief and immerse myself into these fantasy worlds so completely.

The basic structure of Costume Quest is part action adventure, part RPG. You can either play as the sister or brother in a set of siblings first introduced to you as the new kids in Acorn Falls, eager but apprehensive about trick-or-treating since they still have not made any friends. I played as Wren, the little sister who badgers Reynold, her little brother, about his embarrassingly hideous candy corn costume. The same costume that almost within minutes of venturing out gets poor Reynold kidnapped by candy-stealing monsters who mistake him for a giant piece of sweet. A candy-snatching plot is uncovered and your goal, as Wren, is to defeat the creepies to get both her brother and the town’s candy supply back. To help in combating the trolls and scary birds in her way, each costume you acquire (total of about 11) gives you the fighting ability of that particular role. When dressed as a robot, Wren transforms into a missle-loaded mech with basic and heavy movement, whereas being dressed in the vampire costume gives her the power to control bats and utilize ranged attacks. A couple of costume roles were healers and others guardians, so when the party size increased to three you could choose from a set of different fighting stances. The combat was turn-based, and a little repetitive, so having the variety of costumes to choose from helped alleviate the monotony. I was quite fond of the pumpkin costume because it turned into a Jack Skellington-like character with a jack-o-lantern head and his heavy attack was called “All Hallows Eve”.

Stepping outside of the main quest, however, is where most of the fun resides. There are three different settings, a neighborhood, a mall, and a small spooky village with a carnival and a corn maze. Each of them contains a set of playful, childlike missions, such as trick-or-treat ten houses, bob for apples or find six children playing hide-and-seek. A large portion of the game is collecting; candy is everywhere and it was easy to get obsessive about picking it up out of mailboxes, trash cans, or glittering on the ground. Candy is currency to exchange for battle enhancements, but it’s also just really fun to gather (sadly, never to eat). As you progress your candy bag gets better until you finally have the ultimate bat shaped carrying apparatus that holds more candy than you could possibly consume. I admit I explored everywhere for orange and yellow jack-o-lanterns to smash (in my defense, they were full of candy) and green glowing caskets (treasure chests) to creak open. But this was more because when I sensed I was out of quests in a particular level and nudged to move forward I stubbornly resisted and kept exploring because I wasn’t ready to leave. Nope, not done here, game, there are more things to uncover in this delicious and irresistible setting.

So here is where I am going to gush a little-I absolutely fell in love with the setting. From the moment little Wren walked out of her house and started strolling down the heavily decorated cul-de-sac filled neighborhood I was hooked. In the neighborhood setting every walkway was lined with glowing luminaries and spiders dangled from porch rails. In the mall the storefronts were laden with candlelit pumpkins. Trick-or-treating was truly that-either a costumed adult answered the door and lavished candy upon you or a monster camping out emerged for a surprise attack. Accompanying every knock were several seconds of sweet, heart racing anticipation-which would it be? The monster trick or the sweet treats? But if I could really pack my belongings and move anywhere it would definitely be the last area, Fall City, where a gas lit village and a spooky carnival have plenty of tricks and treats in store for our little heroes. If you loved Halloween as a child because of its delightfully spooky atmosphere and creepy decorations, you will surely love the world of Costume Quest. If you love Halloween as an adult because of the fond memories of being out with your friends in costume, imagining hidden monsters and eagerly anticipating candy, Costume Quest will help you get all of those feelings back for a few hours.

With about ten days until Halloween, I would encourage those curious or interested to pick up Costume Quest on XBL for $15 and play it prior to the holiday-the perfect ambiance and mood for an ideal playthrough is right now, in the season. Turn off the lights, light some candles, snuggle up on the couch and spend an evening with Wren and Reynold. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday Rant

I love Assassin’s Creed. I’ve written several blogs about my adoration of the series and how apprehensive I am about the intense campaign for the multiplayer aspect in Brotherhood. I played a few rounds in the beta and was bored after about an hour-it just wasn’t for me. I have a really hard time replaying the same map and mechanic over and over again unless its puzzle related and therefore what I consider a built-in Zen experience (Luxor brings me peace). But seeing the single player heavy achievement list made me optimistic about continuing Ezio’s story. I briefly considered buying it instead of renting it until I realized how little I actually know about the single player story-so much exposure has been given to the multiplayer that I’ve tuned out any articles that may have celebrated the SP experience. I am that girl-the one who likes a secret indie band until they become famous, exploited and end up on the side of toothpaste tubes. I say things like “they’ve changed, man, they used to be so good”. Overexposure to anything wears me down (except peppermint ice cream). I like things associated to my relevant interests to come to me in small, well developed doses after a lot of creative blood, sweat and tears have been shed. I hate the marketing machine that follows like a slobbering dog behind anything that gains popularity among the masses.

I hate advertising. The occasional movie or game preview is okay, but I despise aggressive marketing campaigns. I hate the little squares of blurbs that pull out my personal information on Facebook and try to cater to my exact needs (Cheap Seattle Weddings! Become a Video Game Tester!). It feels like stalking. I didn’t tell these companies I am getting married. I didn’t solicit them for information. But here they are, violating my screen space with their obnoxious yelling. I have taken to tagging every advertisement as “Offensive” in order to quell the tide of marketing, but alas, it’s a fruitless endeavor. It’s part of the agreement I made with Facebook just by signing up (although after today, my tentatively open arms to social gaming via companies like Zynga are now closed again). We don’t even subscribe to cable television because we agree it’s best to watch shows via DVD or Netflix streaming to avoid commercials. To sum up, I hate advertising. And I really hate cross promotions that have nothing to do with one another-aka, Assassin’s Creed on the side of a Slurpee cup. Am I supposed to believe that I will have a better gaming experience if I am chock full of processed sugar and my tongue is stained blue?

How do I reconcile my love for Assassin’s Creed with my hatred for the aggressive (and, yes, annoyingly inevitable) marketing campaign that has followed in its wake? Is completely tuning it out my only option? Can’t anything already beloved by fan$ just $peak for it$elf?

*Photo credit to my friend Trina, who sent me this because she knew it was relevant to my interests.
**Dollar signs added deliberately, because yes, logically, I get it. I just don't like it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Screenshot Friday!

Today Screenshot Friday is more like ‘relevant game photo’ day since I have been out of town all week on business and haven’t touched a controller since last Saturday. Before leaving for North Dakota I was able to finish Minerva’s Den, which I will write more about later (spoiler: loved it), and start a game in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Heading into the world of Castlevania is a new experience for me-I am one of the few longtime gamers out there who has never played any of the others in the series. I know, you’re shocked! Well, maybe you’d be more shocked if you knew just how much I love vampires (I love them. A lot.). I am currently only a couple of hours into LoS and so far it’s been a hit and miss experience. I think the world is beautiful, but the combat is boring. The NPCs look fantastic, but the first puzzle I encountered was uninspired. I am currently stuck on the most ridiculous and time wasting titan battle I have ever encountered in my entire gaming life (yes, I get it, RT is grip, you can stop telling me now-oh, and you can die in a fire, Mr. Ice Titan). I knew it was going to be hard-I’ve heard the rumors about how challenging the Castlevania games can be, but the scale seems off. I have a really hard time liking games that ramp up the difficulty unexpectedly-I am way more comfortable with a gradual climb. I admit I did throw the controller to the floor halfway through this battle in frustration, but then I had one of those ‘I’m not going to let this game get to me-I’m better than this, dammit’ moments and am determined to head back in for more. So far, the beginning feels unpolished and clunky, but in honor of the series I want to keep going.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Deathspank & the Quest for Underpants

After many, many hours traversing a landscape destroyed by war, riddled with spooks, deserted by dinosaurs and guarded by robots, I finally finished the second Deathspank, Thongs of Virtue. And although I am 100% complete, I must admit that I am only about 87% pleased. To me, a sequel is something that improves upon the original after taking into account audience feedback and the cash acquired from the original. Since TOV was designed alongside the first game, the only changes made were in narrative and landscape. Now, if you loved the first one to tiny bits, like I did, this doesn’t sound like a problem-it sounds fantastic! But sadly, I found myself getting a little bored near the end with the dialogue and the quest monotony.

The same basic menu applied, with the ‘auto choose best armor’ option checked-if they would have asked, I would have recommended adding a second box entitled ‘destroy armor after removal’ to ensure that I wouldn’t spend a lot of pointless time putting discarded gloves and necklaces in the grinder (I suppose someone may want to keep the adorable lion headpiece as a novelty, but its totally impractical to wear if you are holding something superior). TOV indulged in the same irreverent dialogue, which was adorable in the first game but quickly got old partway through the second-not because it wasn’t funny, but because it was the same kind of funny the whole way through. Picture me laughing at first, then giggling softly, and then finally skipping the dialogue completely and reading the quest log instead and this would be a fairly accurate visual of me on my couch between 10pm and midnight for two weeks straight. Maybe it was because the new and shininess of the original had worn off or because the release dates were too close together, but I was definitely 13% less entertained by TOV than I was by Deathspank.

So now that I have said that, 87% of me was quite pleased. I loved the new landscapes-especially the North Pole, where you must visit a bitter and disenchanted Santa Claus and persuade him to give up his underpants for the greater good. Both games introduced you to some great characters, but my favorites are the pirates of Scurvyville (a homage to Monkey Island?) and Tina, the woman who runs the taco stand. Tina reminds me of the stereotypical customer service employee, asking you if you want fries with that in a monotonous and totally apathetic tone. This time around she is forced to sing a ridiculous birthday song for you, which cracked me up. Madam Primp, who I mentioned in my screenshot blog, is a lady of the night with a heart of gold…literally. Between the pirates and disgruntled service workers there are also robots, cannibals, orphans, monks, ghosts, aliens, bandits and of course, crazy chickens. Overall the NPC’s give you 100+ quests, taking you from a French Town to a Destroyed City, a dinosaur bone yard to the Blood Mountains, where you travel via outhouse to complete them all (if you want).

About three quarters into the game you acquire a pirate ship. I LOVED MY PIRATE SHIP. Now, admittedly, there isn't much to do with the ship once you have it because you are assumedly almost done with the game, but I probably spent about 150% longer than I should have sailing the curlique seas. With the Jolly Roger displayed proudly on the sails and Deathspank singing a variety of sea shanties, what's not to love? I found Hothead Island. It contained orques.

Beyond the pirate ship, though, I think one of the more entertaining elements of Deathspank is the monster killing. Although I bemoaned the item menu above, I actually found choosing weapons delightful. In the first game your ranged weapon was a crossbow, but in the second game its a gun. About halfway through I acquired a fairly powerful ray gun with unlimited ammo (unlike all of the other higher level choices) that required a brief cooldown after two shots. Combined with a giant ice tusk for those pesky fire immunities, a fire dagger for those irritating ice immuties and a giant level 20 axe, I was an unstoppable machine. My raygun killed space marines with one shot-they would float off into space with a tiny groan as I moved on to the next victim (insert maniacal laugh). The monsters are the true stars of the show here-mad pirates, swamp donkeys, dark forest lephrechans, ice's the biggest grab bag of creative characters I have seen in awhile (I did miss the unicorns). And choosing the right kind of weaponry for the slaughter is delicious fun. A small bit of grinding helps a lot in Deathspank-that way you get a lot of one shot kills instead of having to get close enough to pound away at them while still being far enough away to eat a plate of beans and rice. Learning how to effectively use the invincibility spheres and armor potions helped a lot. I was able to kill a few levels above mine due to creative itemwork.

I hope they make another Deathspank...but not for at least a year. Although the story of the thong may be over (or is it...) I am sure there are more tales to tell about our Vanquisher of Evil.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Screenshot Friday!

I am sad to confess that I have been so busy wading through the chaos of my daytime life that I have had no real time to write this week. Hopefully this weekend will come with calmer tidings and I will be able to tell everyone about finishing Deathspank and my late night sessions in Minerva's Den, the newest chapter of DLC for Bioshock 2. As always, I am enraptured, although playing underwater is starting to rust a bit in terms of being conceptually unique-I think I have reached a point now where I am ready to experience Columbia, even if I will never stop loving Rapture.

At the point of my last save I was several hours in, completely out of ammunition (and money) with a Little Sister sitting on my shoulder waiting for a gather. Perfect challenge! Here are some visuals of Minerva's Den, where Rapture's central computer is housed:

Friday, October 1, 2010

Screenshot Friday!

I am still progressing steadily in Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue. I am certainly getting my $15 worth with this one-it’s about 50% larger than the original with a larger map and a pirate ship! The screenshots I have today are from Madam Primp’s, the owner of a brothel in the town of Strumfuquel. When you ask her to perform…services…for you, she requests a...role…for you to choose. There are a total of twenty to choose from, but these are my two favorites. The one above is the Crunchy Peanut Butter and the one below is the Skillful Zombie. Rawr.

Viva la Robolution!

With the release of the Game of the Year edition on the horizon, Gearbox has released what appears to be the grand finale of the Borderlands DLC, Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, or as I like to call it, Viva la Robolucion! The last fight saw our heroes battling high level lancers in the Crimson Armory, an enormous bit of content with a highway laden landscape and huge returns as the level cap increased to 61 and the armory itself contained enough loot to arm the entire planet. This time around we have been caught in the middle of a fight between the illustrious Hyperion Corporation and a much more sinister foe-our little robot buddies. Led by the Interplanetary Ninja Assassin Claptrap (INAC), the claptraps are tired as hell of being subjugated under the boots of oppression and are rising up to rule Pandora the best way they know how-using technology. The Hyperion Corporation needs our reluctant assistance in putting this revolution down, offering our heroes rich rewards in exchange for their service.

As with most of the Borderlands DLC, CNRR gives the player several new zones to explore. The main hub is Tartarus Station, an area comprised of a railroad line and few inhabitants. A lonely NPC mans a bar near the Mission Board in town, listening to Moxxi's theme music on repeat, but other than a few strands of twinkling green lights and some roughed up Vegas style signs the town is largely unoccupied. The real missions lie just beyond the transit line-a cave system, a dump, an expanse of desert and a crossing full of archways and Claptrap paraphernalia. I really missed my car from the Crimson Armory. Even though the areas are fairly small in size, running back and forth to Tartarus Station to pick up and turn in missions ate up a lot of time. And without the ability to pick up several missions at a time there was a whole ton of jogging. With a second person this works out fairly well-one of you runs, the other loots. Whoever gets to the zone change station first clicks us out. All in all, I think I liked the Wayward Pass zone best of all-full of battle arenas and robotic manipulation, most of the classic Borderlands humor was its best on your journey to the end.

One thing Borderlands does well is NPC evolution. In the original game we saw such villains as anarchist bandits, lunatics and brutes. Occasionally one would show up with glowing eyes and the tag “Badass” added to his name, but they were still the same central stock of a dozen or so NPCs. With each DLC comes the usual suspects of baddies, but they always come with a twist. In CNRR our bandits and lunatics are 'traps' and have been converted to half human-half robot monstrosities with glass beakers on their heads and skin glowing blue with digital network lines. Instead of yelling in grunts and growls, we hear the high pitched timbre of the claptrap coming out of their mouths-very disconcerting after hours upon hours of being conditioned to protect anything we hear using this voice. A few previous bosses have been resurrected and reassembled by the INAC, allowing you to pulverize a select few again, this time with slight cosmetic differences. And without giving too much away I will say that the final fight was amazing in its granduer (bring two friends), and gives the player a feeling that they have come full circle from the very start of this mad journey into Pandora.

The claptraps are the real stars of this show, however. The INAC certainly knows how to throw a revolution party. Motivational sayings such as ‘Is the claptrap not entitled to the oil on his brow?’ spew out of loudspeakers in every zone you traverse throughout the six or so hours of playtime. The robot troops are well prepared and show up to the party dressed in their finest mohawks, bullet sleeves and boxing gloves, taunting our heroes by calling them 'fleshies' and 'treasure hunters'. I know I should've been convinced of their unwavering determination, but really I just kept cooing at their adorableness. Fans of the missions in the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned will really enjoy the theme of this chapter, as it contains the same combination of irreverent humor and item collection.

And in true Borderlands spirit, please exchange any previously mentioned 'rich rewards' above with EPIC LOOT. For anyone who is familiar with the mechanics of Pandora, you will immediately know that this shooter-cum-RPG taps into the side of our brains that craves the unknown-convincing us that if we just open one more chest, the perfect gun or mod will surely be inside. The Crimson Armory was a salivating monster of loot generosity and CNRR is no exception. My Hunter and my fiancee's Soldier stepped in at the current maximum, Level 61, so it's become fairly difficult for us to find something more powerful than what we have equipped-but the possibility is always there. So we continue to compulsively open every green latched chest and locker, picking up every weapon worth over a million dollars in hopes of finding the holy of holies of weaponry. For those who never finished the Crimson Armory, I can almost guarantee there is something waiting for you inside Tartarus Station. And it just might be in the form of a Claptrap Bobblehead or a pair of pink panties.

This post was originally written for The Modern Day Pirates, who were gracious enough to give me a review code for the content.