Friday, February 25, 2011

Snapshot Friday!

After several months of playing through the new song library in Rock Band 3 with just the standard set of guitars, a drum set and two microphones, Matt decided it was time for us to get the new keyboard peripheral. He tested it out initially using the normal “Keys” mode, but switched over to the “Pro Keys” after only a couple of songs, suggesting I do the same when it was my turn to play. So after settling in with the mini-keyboard in my lap, I gave it a try, skipping over the normal mode and starting with Easy “Pro”. I played a couple of songs without too much difficulty and switched to Medium…where I promptly failed. So…yeah…back to Easy for awhile. It’s a strange thing to have to teach myself a new Rock Band instrument after years of proficiency on guitar and vocals. I was never much for drums, but I find that I want to be good at the keyboard, so not figuring it out instantly is a little frustrating. It’s as though I expect to be great at it right away because the game itself is so familiar. I mean, if I can sing on Hard/Expert Mode and 100% almost every note playing guitar on Medium (Hard Mode makes me feel anxious), why can’t I just pick up another color-coded instrument set and effortlessly start rocking? Overall, though, it’s quite fun to learn something new. And once I figured out several note changes in a row by feel and not by staring at the keyboard intently, I started to feel like it just may be an enjoyable and rewarding experience…eventually.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

First Impressions

In a moment of insanity last weekend, I came up with a handful of reasons why I wasn’t going to play the Dragon Age 2 demo. One, I like having a continuous beginning to end experience that moves smoothly without interruption, and I find that demos distract from that initial immersion factor. Just when I start to fall in love, the game abruptly ends, cutting off the new and still vulnerable connection between myself and the characters. And two, I’ve already pre-purchased it, so there is no need for a taste test to decide whether or not it is worth the investment, further propelling my determination to wait. But, feelings of excitement and temptation overcame my self control and I couldn’t help but try it out. The demo does give a bit of exposition concerning the narrative direction and how it relates to Origins, but I am not going to mention the storyline in this highlight reel because I still don’t know enough to give it a fair analysis. The visual and mechanical aspects alone show the vast improvements that BioWare has made to the sequel.

Graphically, it’s beautiful. All of the facial structures are softer and the characters move with grace and ease. The demo doesn’t allow you to make any appearance changes (boo), but you can see from looking at Hawke, our protagonist, and her (or his) party members that your choices are going to be vast and more realistic than Origins. You can’t choose between races this time around, Hawke is definitely human, but the Mage, Rogue, Warrior options are still there. I chose a Female Mage, just like my character in Origins, and intend to do so during the real game as well. While it may be fun to try something new, I also like the idea of creating a sort of flow between the two games, even if the character personalities are wildly different. You only see a snippet of the world in direct relation to the Battle at Ostagar, but what is viewable is also more graphically defined, with the lines of scenery sweeping cleanly across the horizon.

The movement and combat controls are more responsive. I found Origins to be a little clunky and slow in places, with combat being the worst (as a mage, anyway, I didn't play any other class). But the sequel has cleaned up much of the slower, heavier movements. The spell casting is swift, using the same functionality as Origins with sets of spell choices assigned via a wheel. And, most importantly, I didn’t hear any of the silly vocal phrases that repeated endlessly in the original after each attack, such as the silly 'If I give you a ladder will you get off my back' mantra I had to listen to thousands of times during fight sequences. I desperately hope that is a permanent change and it wasn’t just an aspect of the demo. Many of the menu system options were locked; for example, even though you could loot new equipment from glittering bodies littered around the environment, you couldn’t equip them and test them out. But the rest of the new menu system is functionally similar to Origins-the interface is different but works pretty much the same way during the level up phase. They altered the assignment of Attributes slightly to show exactly how each skill point actually affects the character's stats, which I approve of wholeheartedly.

The dialogue graphic is more like the one in Mass Effect than in Origins, with each option displaying a little picture to show more depth of response emotion. If you are being virtuous, or generous, the wheel center will show a little angel picture, whereas if you choose the more impartial or unemotional dialogue line, you will see a little gavel. If you are ‘Investigating’, or asking more questions about the situation, you will see a highlighted question mark. I am not sure how well I like this change. For me, picking which response to utilize in Origins was a more thoughtful aspect of the game that I enjoyed. Even though it was fairly obvious which ones were helpful and which ones were more dismissive, occasionally I could see the value for a couple of exchanges and considered what it meant to me, as the player. By seeing exactly which emotion I will be yielding, I am concerned I will want to be consistent as opposed to reading and considering the inherent effect of every option available.

I am not sure if this is the same demonstration they showed at PAX because I wasn't willing to wait two hours to see it (I chose to wait for the multiplayer Assassin's Creed instead). I died twice during a big battle that I assume was near the end last night and chose not to proceed because it was midnight and I work fairly early in the morning-I figure I will be more willing to lose sleep while experiencing the full game with my customized Hawke. Moving through the teaser highlighted all of the gameplay improvements and updated menu system as well as giving the player some prologue material to introduce the narrative, my favorite part of the original. I did take March 8th off work to take care of the cleaning and packing process before we leave for Boston, so in between I hope to get a few solid hours in Ferelden. But for now...I wait.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Ah, Double Fine. I think that you and I have a good thing going. Last year you captivated my heart with Costume Quest and now your most recent endeavor, Stacking, has charmed me right out of my recent video game stupor. Keeping this short, but sweet, formula for future adventures would be ideal.

Stacking is set at the turn of last century during the Industrial Age. The Blackmore family is surviving in less than ideal conditions, living mostly off love and the meager pay Papa Blackmore can bring in from odd jobs. One day he comes home in a delighted frenzy, announcing to his wife and children that a mysterious figure named ‘The Baron’ has hired him for real work, guaranteeing they will no longer go hungry. But when he leaves for his first big day, he doesn't return, leaving Mama Blackmore to provide for everyone with little success. The Baron sweeps in soon after to declare that the family must make good on their numerous debts and takes the children as collateral, forcing them to work for him in a variety of enterprises. He leaves one child behind, however, little Charlie, the smallest of the Blackmores, declaring him much too tiny to be an effective worker. Charlie, albeit the tiniest of children, has a powerful determination and an even bigger heart and immediately announces his intention to save his family. And here is where the game starts. Charlie sets off to visit several different areas, a Train Station, a Cruise Ship, a Zeppelin and a Triple Decker Train, in an attempt to rescue his missing brothers & sisters who have been forced to shovel coal or clean smokestacks and defeat the Baron, a notorious overlord to a wicked Child Labor ring.

I never thought I’d see the controversial topic of Child Labor used in such an adorable way, but Double Fine manages to display the atrocities in such a manner that gently reminds you of the horrid conditions during the Industrial Revolution without sinking too low into the reality of the situation. Charlie’s small stature makes him the ideal hero to champion his tiny compatriots and defeat the masked evil Baron, keeping the tone light and fun while dealing with such a heavy subject by using 'silent film' cut scenes and brightly colored scenery. With the exception of some innocent eyes peering out from dirty, coal streaked faces, most of the kids deal with this struggle in a childlike manner, using giggling, hide-and-seek sort of mechanics as though the situation is horrible merely because they no longer have the freedom to play tag. In addition to his goal to save his imprisoned family, Charlie becomes the Voice of the People, using his secret weapon to trick the Baron’s goons. You see, he is the tiniest piece of a Matryoshka Stacking Doll Set, which allows him to sneak up behind any other characters/dolls in the environment and ‘stack’ into them, giving him the ability to use their unique capabilities to solve puzzles and challenges. This ‘stacking’ mechanic is the heart and soul of the game, and each level requires a different combination of dolls be used for a variety of challenges, ramping up the difficulty as you progress. And although the puzzles are fun (yet always ridiculously simple), the highlight of the game beyond the engaging and cheek-pinchingly adorable narrative is the different character dolls inhabiting Charlie’s world.

The gameplay requires you to use a variety of different dolls to proceed through each challenge. Each challenge has several different solutions, so you can choose to do the same one multiple times using different methodologies if your goal is to achieve 100% completion. Doing so adds a fun multilayer experience to a fairly simplistic and straightforward progression. One of the tasks is to collect all of the ‘unique’ dolls in each level. These dolls only show up once, as opposed to a handful of NPC dolls that are duplicated around each area. My absolute favorite is the Widow doll. Located in the Train Station, the Widow allows you to ‘Seduce’ male adult dolls in order to move them away from doorways or other guarded areas. As she walks, the Widow swivels her hips and when prompted, does a boom-boom burlesque move that causes the target doll to fall instantly in love and follow her wherever she goes for a short amount of time. The Pied Piper is another great ‘unique’ doll, using his flute to lure groups of mice to ruin certain objects by nibbling through them. Each level contains around twenty of these dolls with personality, and it is great fun finding them and using their abilities to complete what the game calls ‘Hi-Jinks’. Hi-Jinks add yet another level of gameplay to Stacking, prompting the player to use the unique dolls to perform very specific acts of mischief, such as using one of the little child dolls in the Train Station to play Tag with five other tiny dolls or using the ‘Towel Folding’ children to throw sheets over others, making them look like wee little ghosts. My favorite Hi-Jink involves using a female doll onboard the Zeppelin to, um, pass gas, over other dolls – you see, instead of the green toxic cloud that some dolls would exude using the same action, this doll passes potpourri in the shape of a giant cloud of pink and purple flowers all over her fellow dolls.

So, yes, many dolls use the power of bodily functions to distract or disgust other dolls. But just like the Child Labor storyline that stays fairly innocent and light, the use of belches and flatulence never distracts from the sophistication of the Industrial steam and coal powered environment, serving only to enforce the idea that this game is told by the perspective of a child. And when you are a child, an adult letting out a powerful and stinky belch is hilarious, not sophomoric. Seeing a giant clown face (as pictured above), is absolutely terrifying in a curious and mysterious way. As with Costume Quest, Stacking reminds you what it is like to see the world through the eyes of an innocent, imagining conquering the boring and boundary-filled world of the adults around you with playful and mischievous behavior. Double Fine does another great job at seeing the world of the grown-ups as fairly useless, counting on the ingenuity and unyielding dedication of a child to beat the ultimate evil, a masked bandit who dares to see Charlie as an inconsequential piece of a larger, more formidable formation...his loving family.

I didn’t love Stacking as much as I did Costume Quest, but then again I am utterly enamored of Halloween and need no additional incentive to be devoted to Wren and Reynold’s tale. Stacking also required you to wander the same areas over and over again if you wanted to acquire that enticing 100% completion score, which was a bit tedious. But after several weeks of failing to engage with any other games, I was delighted to rekindle that loving feeling of immersion while guiding Charlie along his path. I would highly recommend Stacking for people who may need a break from the more serious, expansive experiences of other games and want to spend five or six hours merely having fun in a beautiful environment full of interesting and lovable characters.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Treasures in the Mail

Boston, I don't care if your weather is crap, just don't let a blizzard keep us from landing safely into Logan International on March 9. I promise to bring a scarf this time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Internet Love

As internet rumors and hearsay go, this one is definitely my new favorite.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Encore, No More

And so it ends, not with a blaze of glory and a grand, firework heavy encore, but in a single sentence on a financial report. Activision has officially announced the end of the Guitar Hero franchise, leaving the musical genre to its successor, Harmonix’s Rock Band. This is pretty fitting, since Harmonix was the company that originally helped create Guitar Hero. But this isn’t a sad, lamenting eulogy about the demise of Guitar Hero; this is a heartfelt thanks to the series for being the spark I needed to get back into video gaming after a several year hiatus post college.

I moved to Seattle in 2004 after a tumultuous and unhappy six months in Atlanta, Georgia where I spent most of my time clicking my heels together in hope that I could return to the Pacific Northwest as soon as possible. During that time I watched my boyfriend at the time overuse my PS2 to the point where it was no longer playable. Instead of offering to replace it, he bought himself a new one. After two years of being a bit of a video game voyeur, watching him play Dark Cloud and GTA: Vice City, I had left behind my more interactive side after a long period of time playing SSX Tricky with my brother and his friends, so I was upset more on principle-I had no real desire to replace it. When the heavens smiled back upon me and a glittering trail of gold led me to the Emerald City soon after, I spent most of my time as a free spirit, exploring my new urban environment with my great friend, Danyale. We built bonfires, painted our eyes black, donned lace and vinyl and spent a year dancing through Seattle’s nightlife in hedonistic delight. No time for video games in that world, it was too full of music, a sparkling skyline and a newfound craving for bubble tea. A year later I was snuggled back into the green-hued suburbs, enjoying the trees and a new partner, who reintroduced me to the world of video games. He played Warcraft and Counter Strike, purchased the best headphones and brought an Xbox 360 into my life.

One day he came home with a tiny plastic guitar tucked under one arm, lent to him by a co-worker. This was Guitar Hero. It was like nothing I had ever seen before and was ridiculously loud. I hated it. I thought the music was obnoxious and he turned the volume up way too high. But in true Jessica style, a visit from my younger brother changed everything. If you recall from previous posts, my brother, Jordan, is my video game hero, my lifelong digital role model. When he took an interest in Guitar Hero 2, I started paying more attention. After watching him dive into the sets without struggling, my interest piqued. He handed me the guitar, turned on Freezepop’s ‘Less Talk More Rokk’ and I was back. I started jamming every night, which soon turned into my own XBL account, evolved into a devout interest in Rapture and Bioshock, fell headfirst and passionately in love with Altair in Assassin’s Creed and have been knee deep ever since. When the aforementioned boyfriend and I no longer came with an ‘and’ between our names, I took it upon myself to purchase my very own 360 and GH3, where my friend Krystle and I co-oped an entire tour together and I made my first move into an online multiplayer environment playing The Killers ‘When You Were Young’. My hands shook the entire time. Whether it was from nerves or several blue cans of Rock Star, we’ll never know for sure. It felt like home.

Alas, this was my last positive encounter with a Guitar Hero game. As the Muppet-faced characters in GH3 evolved into the beautiful and customizable avatars in Rock Band, I picked up the microphone as a loyal convert, never to return. And although it was inevitable based on the ever declining popularity and sales of the Guitar Hero franchise, I will continue to have fond memories of the game that brought me back to the fold.

Au revoir, Guitar Hero – thanks for everything. Especially Carry on My Wayward Son.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


It finally happened. After an entire year of regular posts as a result of fairly consistent game consumption, I have hit a bit of a wall. The three games I have at home, Venetica, Majin & the Forsaken Kingdom and Create, do not inspire the sort of avid attention I would normally give more desirable titles. Truthfully, I am suffering from media overload and taking a bit of a break from the noise by catching up on some mindless television via Netflix, reading a lot of graphic novels, such as Fables and Sandman, and making plans with friends. I think it’s mainly because I don’t really care about any of the games people in the ever-streaming video game journalism world are currently chattering about. The EA/Bulletstorm controversy seems old and stale – the product of a high-fiving marketing team of dudes facing a finger-wagging group of concerned parents, psychology ‘experts’ and the ever-alienated ‘girl’ gamer audience. I watched the trailer and thought it looked hilarious, but then again I am less sensitive to these overarching political ‘issues’ that people love to drag to every table as though making a negative point about something will somehow lessen its marketable value. People love extremes, so if Bulletstorm is judged based solely on its playability and fun-factor and turns out to be a terribly executed game, it will still be purchased and rented by the millions so a whole bunch of hardcore gamers can nonchalantly say it’s nothing special. That marketing staff, while under fire in the public world, is still high-fiving behind closed doors. And it’s boring. Yes, video games are violent. Yes, sometimes they are sexual. So are books, movies, music, etc. The difference continues to be that parents don’t seem to be held as accountable to the rating system of games as they are to other mediums, as though keeping your child from seeing a NC-17 rated movie is excruciatingly more difficult than keeping them from playing a Mature rated game. I remember getting into passive aggressive arguments with parents while working at Blockbuster:

Me: “Just to let you know, the game your ten year old picked out, Grand Theft Auto III, is rated M for Mature and is recommended for people over 17 due to mature subjects such as violence and sexuality.”
Parent: “Whatever, they will just play it at their friend’s house anyway.”
Me: *shakes head in revulsion*

I am an adult – I understand that shooting bitches in the face is only acceptable when it is simulated in a heavily animated, completely fantastical format using a controller. As a twelve year old I understood this as well, but lucky for me my mother paid avid attention to what I was reading/watching/playing and kept me flush in puzzle games, Zelda and the Baby-Sitters Club books so I wouldn’t even be tempted to search out my own instruments of media terror. Oh, and she played with me. I remember watching her march through Hyrule to rescue Zelda just as clearly as I recall doing it myself. I have fond memories of pills falling from the sky in Dr. Mario and marveling at her color-matching skills. I hate these arguments so much. Parents need to parent. Media needs to be kept uncensored but rated accordingly.

*steps down from soapbox*

Anyway…I’m semi-interested in Dead Space 2, but not without finishing the first one, which right now I have no desire to do. If while reading this you think I am being grumpy, I am not. I am just uninspired and in need of a break. I have fallen victim to too many announcements, editorials and controversies in the video game journalism and promotional world due to a devout attention to Twitter feeds and an overload of Google Reader subscriptions. I joined Twitter to find people to play with and discovered just how much I love playing alone. My devotion to this interactive, virtual world is very personal and intimate. By listening too closely to everyone else’s opinions to try to ferret out ‘information’, I started to feel less connected to playing and more paranoid about how my opinions would come across in the grand schematic of journalistic networking. My original intent when I started this blog was becoming lost in outside voices and I needed to take a huge step away from it all in order to gain some perspective and remember that I started this simply because I love video games. From Tetris to Assassin’s Creed, I have been interacting with games since as far back as I can remember because I love the feel of a controller in my hand and the sense of adventure and accomplishment when progressing through the digital landscape. I read a lot of books, I see a lot of movies, and I play a lot of video games. And right now I am working on getting back to my roots by disconnecting from a large portion of the world of press releases and opinionated chatter and focusing back on writing about personal reflections and experiences while simply playing.

So if February starts to pass quickly by without a lot of regular posts from me, just know that it’s just because I am a little burnt out and in need of a breather. If anyone who likes graphic novels hasn’t read the Fables series, I would highly recommend it. In anticipation of our trip to Boston for PAXEast in 28 days, I logged in to Orbitz and reassigned our airline seats (it’s the little things). I will probably leisurely play Stacking, Double Fine’s newest downloadable, in the next week. I continue to play Chime because it’s magnificently beautiful and incredibly useful for mindless video game meditation. Oh, and speaking of sex and violence, I finally preordered Dragon Age 2, the one game coming out in the next month that I am truly excited about:

And, somehow, taking a break now, after my 100th post, seems quite fitting. See you soon.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

DLC Mania-Pigsy Finds His Perfect 10

Before I talk about my experience playing Pigsy’s Perfect 10, I need to confess something. As much as I carried on about how simple the combat was during Monkey and Trip’s journey into the Wasteland, describing it in a casual manner based on the simple mashability of our hero’s staff, I found the downloadable content incredibly difficult and would not have completed it unless my loving partner hadn’t stepped in and gracefully cleared out several areas in order to keep me from destroying our living room. You see, where Monkey employed the standard melee technique to defeat his foes, occasionally adding a stun or plasma burst for the more complicated scenarios, Pigsy’s weapon of choice is a sniper rifle. And coming from someone who sold off every sniper she received in Borderlands because my love affair with the SMG was longlasting and sustainable, I can safely say that I was not destined to see the end credits of Pigsy’s journey to find his Perfect 10 without the help of my own.

I was a tad confused when I learned that Monkey and Trip would not be part of the story, and instead the focus was going to be on a character that had little redeeming qualities in the main story and showed up four chapters before the epilogue. Set right before the time when our dynamic duo rendezvoused with him amongst the ruins, our goal is to help lonely Pigsy collect the mechanical components to build the perfect companion-aka a robotic bombshell of a lady. To assist, Pigsy has a sidekick named Truffles, whose appearance is akin to a puppy dog trapped inside of a computer monitor that can fly...yep, I’m sticking with that description. Together they use mainly stealth, a sniper rifle and a mixed bag of patience mechanics - decoys, bombs, tons of concrete pylons to hide behind - to defeat the enemies in their path. It sounds a bit trite, but in the same amazing narrative style employed in the original game, there is more depth at work here than can be comprehended from a brief synopses. Although Pigsy is not the most lovable character, he does learn some touching lessons along the way. There are a few fairly unnecessary collectibles around, including pin-up posters and packages of food, but instead of being persistent, they serve as a sort of nudging reminder of Pigsy's whimsical vices.

When I talked about Enslaved’s shortfalls, I mentioned the clunky mechanics and infuriating camera angles as the main offenders. Well, Pigsy still has a hard time getting around in his spotlight chapter, but I chalk it up to his bulk more than anything else. You see, Pigsy is, well, a bit of a sloth. And a bit of a lecher. Beyond the complex bits of mechanical modifications he has made to his face, including a chrome colored snout-like object covering his nose, our latent hero has all of the makings of his own stereotype-a misogynistic pig. He wears an upside down kissy-mouth belt buckle and a stained tank top over a hefty, overflowing frame. Instead of the graceful platform to pipeline leaps Monkey performs effortlessly in the main story, Pigsy can only pull himself up onto shorter ledges and must use a grappling hook attached to his arm to get to the higher points in the game. But surprisingly, the aspects of the game that felt heavy and clumsy in Enslaved work much better with the armory that Pigsy employs. The snipe mechanic was clean, the decoy/EMP distracts were helpful and the progression felt much more like a game than the repetitive melee in the main story. Even though the jump ability still felt slightly unresponsive and the cameras continued to be part player driven and part forced POV, the overall narrative plus stealthy stylization in Pigsy’s story melded well in a way the original story did not. Playing them successively was a bit of a shock, however, because although they are set in the same world, trading action adventure combat for stealth creates a sense that you are not continuing in the same manner and tone as before, but starting an entirely new game.

So why couldn’t I have finished it? Well, I am not the most clever girl when it comes to tactical games. And when my melee happy game turned into a lesson in patience and strategy, I was a bit left behind. My thumbs tend to overreact during high stress situations and I am not the best quick shot even when my survival depends on it. Instead of taking deep breaths and plotting out the best way to approach the scenario with just a bag of stealthy tricks at my hip, I tend to take out the first few enemies I can and then attempt to run out, swords/staffs/axes/giant hammers blazing to take care of the rest. Apparently, I need my stealth to involve a lot of 15th century Roman buildings and a hidden blade. I can say that I made it to The Furnace (Chapter 12) before I stopped and said enough. But being a completionist at heart, I lamented and Matt took over for several of the more difficult mech-infested areas. In the end, I saw the cut scene epilogue and the credit roll, but in my heart I know that the credit belongs to my loving fiancee, because I would probably have stopped playing soon after The Furnace. I like my games fun, and challenges are a-okay, but when I spend several hours stuck on something that YouTube claimed took a player 7.36 minutes to accomplish, I know I am in unrealistic territory. If the occasion ever rises again, I think I will gleefully stick with Monkey and Trip, bashing my way through Post-Apocolyptica.