Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the News

Bad omens for the Assassin's Creed franchise...

But hell, if I couldn't whine about the 'business' side of my favorite game series, this blog would only contain half the content it currently does, so maybe I should be saying thanks for more controversy. I guess we'll just have to wait until May to find out more about the future of Desmond and his ancestral posse.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tragic Magic


After being labelled a despicable mage full of tainted, power hungry blood that tempts beyond measure, my lover turned cohort, Anders, and I have taken to the hills after a horrible massacre in Kirkwall, where all of the major authority figures were felled beneath the judgement of a magician’s staff. Anders may look innocent, but pray you don’t mistake that shocking blue glint in his eye for charm as I once did. He means business and won’t be caged anymore-and no matter how sweetly he continually declares his love for me I can see Justice steering from his shadow. Our freedom is also our downfall, as we are forced to hide in the mountainous regions beyond the fallen city and into Ferelden once again. But I know we will be victorious because our decision to side with the mages, our kin, was absolutely right. One day everyone will understand that not all mages are created the same, and that some of us can overcome our more primal urges for power and continue on the path of morally good and ethically sound. Oh, right, except for that one hot night with Fenris...

And so goes my initial playthrough of Dragon Age 2. I am starting Playthrough Two tonight, but I just couldn’t wait to gush some of my thoughts and emotions about the sequel to the massive endeavour that was Origins. If I could sum the experience up in one word, I think that word would be giddy. I think that DA2 was supposed to be extra serious about the heavier topic at hand, that is, the conflict between the Templars and the Mages in a small, yet grand, walled city beyond Ferelden called Kirkwall, giving everyone steely eyed determination and long-winded speeches complete with furrowed brows and clenched teeth, but I just didn’t buy it. From the get-go the narrative is tinted with a kind of coy mirth as our narrator, Varric, tells a tall tale to a demanding Chantry Seeker concerning ‘The Champion’ and her sibling taking on a horde of darkspawn. When I picture it in my head, I see an amused dwarf holding his hands apart in a gesture that tells his audience that the dragon was “THIS BIG”. Nope, it wasn’t, but my sister’s plushies sure were. Holy crap, BioWare. Could you keep the bodacious ta-tas off my mother at least? Yes, yes, darkspawn, Ogre, Flemeth, all scary and very un-funny. Oh, but those hair horns?! Hilarity abounds.

Once you get to Kirkwall and the overarching storyline starts to piece itself together, it becomes clear that Hawke’s tale is going to be much more compact and localized than the heroic saga in Origins. I suppose we could've guessed from the beginning, since Hawke is merely a champion and not a hero. At first I was disappointed by this, but then I became so distracted by the dungeon clones that I forgot all about the diminutive narrative and instead focused all of my disgruntledness on the copycat areas the game takes you to during it’s endless mission checklist. Hey, Hawke? Go to the Wounded Coast and kill some shit. Check. Okay, now go back to Kirkwall and see Aveline. Check. Could you check on Darktown? I think there are some slavers there to kill. Check. That locket you found while unselfconsciously rummaging through a pile of bones? Take it to a gentleman in Hightown and selfishly demand a reward. Check, check. There is zero encouragement to explore areas that don’t contain a flashing arrow pointing to them on the map, which is how I completely missed Isabela during Act One of Three. It was during Act Two when I realized that my robotic movements through Act One had caused me to miss a crucial party member that I slowed down and started to really embrace Origins's cute little pinchable cousin of a game.

For me, the real strength of DA2 lies in the interactions with your companion characters during your ten year stint in Kirkwall. Now, I know you could fully embrace all of the characters in Origins and take their missions upon you, but I never bothered. I only really liked a few of them and even then I grew bored listening to them talk about themselves ad naseum before I could finally count them as friends or lovers. And playing Awakenings made it even worse when it cut out the ‘getting to know you, getting to know all about you’ objective entirely. In the sequel, your much smaller group of companions is incredibly well designed and desirable. There is more involved than just being a 'good listener' or 'giving great gifts' to gain an individual's favor. As time progressed I realized I barely cared about the story thread winding its way through the three acts and itched to have the opportunity to interact with all of my party members. I maintained a mutual respect with Aveline, my warrior, threw meek Merrill down in the dirt as often as possible (Achievement Unlocked: Rival!), gave affectionate guff to Varric, my loyal rogue, and romanced my mage-mate Anders while still seducing Fenris, the lyrium infused, mage-hating elf who hated to love me so much (most awesomely awkward in-game sex scene ever). I loved them all. I can’t wait to join them (and finally pick up that gypsy chick) in my second Playthrough, where I do it all over again in a much different way.

I could go on and on concerning the ways that Hawke’s story doesn’t live up to the expectations as set by the enormous saga in Origins. As I stated before, the 'narrative that could fit in a shoebox' was much different than the grandiose Warden objective to save everyone from an Archdemon. And spending thirty hours diddling around Kirkwall and it’s surrounding areas was very constrictive after experiencing the geographically expansive country of Ferelden. But taken alone, without piggy-backing on the shoulders of such a well-received game, I think DA2 deserves it's own accolades. The character interactions are compelling and tidy, the voice acting is fantastic, the awkward kissing and lovemaking scenes are touching and made me giggle with glee, the fight sequences are highly responsive and clean (even if they go from ridiculously simple to holy shit, a high dragon) and the conclusion halting and abrupt but still digestible. I was initially worried about the dialogue wheel because I thought it would unconsciously steer me into being consistent with my responses, but I was never once tempted to constantly choose the olive branch of peace. Using the sarcastic choice just added fuel to the giddy fire as it led to the best NPC responses. I imagine if you decided to be cheeky the whole way through the narrative balance would teeter significantly, bordering on absurd. Or you would just be perceived as a total a-hole. Either way, these little touches kept me from taking any of it too seriously, which was unexpectedly charming. I sensed the game was winking at me the entire time as though we were in on the same joke. Overall, playing Dragon Age 2 was the most in-game fun I have had in a really long time and I am delighted to do it all over again.

My second go around is officially called “What Would Fenris Do?” Trying to 'thoroughly' (re: marriage, tattooed babies) win him over as a mage was a lesson in futility as he really hated me and 'my kind'. And here I thought I would never love another elven pretty boy after my tumultuous and decidedly dirty affair with Zevron...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

PAX East Round Up: Warp Preview

While wandering the expansive Expo Hall during PAX East, it was hard not to hear whispers and mentions of a little game off in a back corner called Fez. Without knowing anything at all about this new indie title, I thought it would be a good idea hunt around to see what the buzz was all about. After finding it and thinking, ‘yep, that little spatially interesting platformer sure does look neat’, my attention was instantly diverted to another upcoming indie game sharing the same block of space as Fez. I delicately shoved through the small crowd surrounding a console/television combination guarded by a tiny alien figurine. And what I found was Warp, a new mini-stealth and splatter game designed by Trapdoor. Call me new fashioned, but the slick graphics and adorableness of my newfound alien friend called out to me more than the blocky art style of Fez.

I didn’t get a chance to actually play Warp that first day, but it stayed in the forefront of my mind the following afternoon when we headed back into the mob. An adorable antennaed alien, brief glimpses of men in long white lab coats exploding into red splashes on floors and up walls…I needed to know more. I convinced Matt to head over with me and he was patient while I anxiously waited for my turn, taking the lovely profile shot pictured above. A Trapdoor employee was on hand, answering questions about the gameplay without revealing any real information concerning platforms or release dates, but EA is listed as the publisher, so at least it seems that they are secure for now.

Finally, it was my turn. The first thing you see is a small room where an alien critter named Warp has been imprisoned by…well, I’m not sure, but it looks sort of like a military laboratory in space. The doors swish open with the same noise as those in any good science fiction spaceship and the halls are silverish in color and lined with technological ropes and doodads. The perspective is semi-top down so you can see the tops of the technicians's heads as they shuffle about doing serious research-like business. Warp, understandably, is not happy about being captured and your objective emerges-you must help him escape. But unlike other games, where stealth/escape mechanics involve a lot of waiting behind doors or hanging out of windows, patience is not the only weapon at your disposal. Warp has the ability to transport, or ‘warp’, himself through walls, under doors, into different objects and even inside the people wandering about. But instead of functioning like a possession, where the person turns into a controllable puppet, the bodies you inhabit in Warp start shaking uncontrollably and explode, splattering the room in blood, as though you have just taken a can of red paint and dropped it from the tenth floor. And let me tell you, this reaction is ridiculously entertaining. We cackled in glee every time it happened.

At its heart, Warp appears to be a stealth game. When you transport through walls and doors into new rooms, it’s important that Warp isn’t seen or else the one shot he receives means instant death. When he possesses someone it’s vital that he moves to the next person or object quickly because that person/object will start shaking and any guards in the room will become suspicious and shoot you. If the doctors see one of their comrades start shaking and explode, they realize something terrible has occurred and start weeping in the corner with their faces in their hands. Having the NPC’s aware of what is happening to their companions and visibly react is a nice effect. The demo ended with Warp entering a pretty brutal looking room, lined with dangerous looking robot killers and lasers, leading me to believe that the difficulty will intensify as you progress. This small taste of Warp was more than enticing enough to keep the game on my short list for (hopefully) sometime this year.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PAX East Round Up: Swarm Preview

Last year at Prime, Hothead Games had two different games they were showcasing, the sequel to Deathspank, which was playable, and Swarm, which was not. I was happy to get another chapter of Deathspank and a souvenir pair of thong underwear, but left without too much knowledge about their Pikmin-like game which featured a mass of tiny blue critters who appeared to ‘swarm’ together in order to survive. Well, the wait is over because Swarm, an action-platformer that is as sadistically cute as a toxic waste covered button, is out next week. I was able to play through the first level during the convention, which was fun and horrible at the same time. You start with 30 tiny, fat bellied blue critters and instantly kill most of them by progressing over the treacherous terrain. When I squeaked out a sound of protest the Hothead employee consoled me by telling me that it was intentional. “You have to get used to the idea that part of the objective involves a lot of sacrificing”. I was mollified, but still tried to save as many as possible with a pouty expression on my face. Poor little dudes.

The introduction level takes you through the basic mechanics of how to control the swarm, from dashing forward to leaping across pike covered valleys while hurrying along a crumbling platform. Although you can’t prevent them from splatting into blue goo all over the place, spawn points appear periodically and replenish your count, so the ultimate goal is to keep the group from reducing in numbers below zero. At one point Matt was running through a landscape full of mines and managed to keep just one terrified swarmee alive until he reached the spawn point. It appears that a large portion of Swarm’s fun factor will be in these moments of held breath, cheering on the survivors in an environment hell bent on eliminating everything in sight. In that one instance I wanted nothing more in the world than for that lone critter to prevail. For those who favor the cruel side, finding the most creative way to ‘off’ your swarmites could be equally entertaining, but doesn’t seem terribly challenging since they are itching to jump off cliffs or dive into toxic goo at your command.

I am a fan of these dark humor, full color arcade experiences. I can almost hear the laughter of the development team as they introduce new elements to the design. There is definitely a time and place for long and emotionally charged narratives, but the light and intentionally tongue-in-cheek games remind me of the more simplistic, 2-D titles I played when I was growing up that required you to merely push buttons on the controller in a satisfying way while enjoying the scenery along the path. No intense storyline to follow, no complicated choice patterns, just me and my console spending a few hours entertaining one another. And now that I know how it works, my personal challenge will be to do whatever it takes to keep my troop of critters alive, no matter if Hothead thinks I should just accept their imminent demise.

Swarm will be available on PSN on March 22 and XBLA on March 23.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

PAX East is Ridiculously Huge

After attending six different Penny Arcade Expos in three different venues, first at the tiny little convention center in Bellevue, then the much larger Washington State Convention Center in Seattle and the trial run East location, Hynes Center, I am still in awe at just how enormous the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is in comparison to all three. The Expo Hall, Tabletop Freeplay area, the Queue Room and a giant food court are all the size of a small airplane hanger each, but still manage to be sunk into the same area on Level 0. While the space is cavernous, the 64,000 attendees are still managing to fill it quite nicely, making traversing the Expo Hall a bit of a challenge. Lines wrap around the booths, with thousands of like-minded people waiting for tidbits of upcoming games such as LA Noire, Portal 2, Child of Eden, Duke Nukem Forever and many others. I haven't had a chance to fully absorb all there is to offer in the Expo Hall as we only scouted the land briefly on Friday before heading up to the Irrational Games panel, but we plan to head back in to root out some of the Indie games and give them a try today.

Yesterday was amazing and tiring. We attended Jane McGonigal's keynote, the PA Q&A, the Bioshock: Infinite panel and the Friday night Protomen concert while still managing to squeeze a couple of board/card games in between. It's possible that I am getting too old to sit on the ground for long stretches of time, so I am happy to have Saturday solely devoted so far to wandering, soaking in the ambiance and playing some tabletop games with friends and strangers alike as opposed to waiting in snaking, squished together lines. I hope to get more time with actual video games, but the wait times look a little daunting and there is so much more to see and do. And as you can see from the first picture, the tabletop freeplay area can hold about a bajillion people, so it's a lovely way to pass the afternoon if fighting the crowds milling about the ever-crowded Expo Hall is not your cup of tea.

All three of these photographs were taken from the perspective of the sky bridge connecting the east and west halls of the center.

See you soon!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Lady Hawke

If I have one teensy tiny little disappointment about Dragon Age 2, it's that its release date coincides with our trip to Boston for PAX East. It's wonderful to be back in...well...Kirkwall, near Ferelden. I have been playing two classic titles in the past couple of weeks, Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil, but as great as both of them are it's a breath of fresh air to play the sequel to Origins. I don't want to be one of those people that has a hard time looking backwards, but I have to admit that I am craving my new champion's story far more than either of the games from the past. And now that I am toe deep into Hawke's tale I am pretty sure the others will not receive any further attention until I am done. I am fairly well known in my inner circle for exclusively kicking it new school.

I will also admit to spending about 45 minutes in character creation, and I am quite satisfied with my Hawke. I am a little obsessed with facial tattoos-I long for the day they are fashionable and acceptable in real life but confine myself to putting them on my avatars. She is a mage, just like my character in Origins. I also chose to carry over my save from Origins to keep the story consistent, but after a few hours in it doesn't seem to matter beyond one mention. But I do like that the one mention was about 'her' and 'her companion', which would have been Gaia and Zevron, my two travelers. I do find it odd that although our family members looked the same during the demo, Matt's male warrior has a completely different looking family than I do in my game. The characters are the same, just with new noses, eyes and other facial features. Oh, and also-[MINI SPOILER ALERT] I love Flemeth's hair horns. Seriously, best ever.

I am going to try to do a bit of semi-live blogging from Boston. We'll see how much access I have via the over-clogged wifi. Either way, expect updates! Or...see you there!