Thursday, July 5, 2012

Very Late Diablo 3 Review

Diablo III is a fantastic experience, but with a few design blemishes that are significant enough to give any purchaser pause. This review is admittedly late, but hopefully it will help those who are on the fence about the game. There’s been a lot of vitriol and baseless praise around Diablo 3 and it is probably confusing to anyone who may want to buy the game.

For better or worse, Diablo III is best described as a tactile World of Warcraft. The goal is to level your character, get loot, and to use that loot to defeat stronger and stronger monsters. That’s the game, every Diablo game actually, in a nutshell. You can do this alone, but as with any game that is ostensibly an MMO, doing it with friends is more fun and more challenging. In Diablo 3 you’ll go through the same story beats over and over, and kill the same bosses over and over.  Pressing the space bar to skip dialogue will become habit because you’re in it for the loot and the satisfaction of killing demons, not the story.

The story is, in all actuality, the thinnest part of the entire experience. It’s short. It’s vapid. It’s meaningless other than to provide a thin pretext for killing demons. The story is told well. The voice acting is superb because they have some high caliber talent. Let’s just say, I named my Female Wizard Azula for a very good reason. The only thing that sucks about the voice acting is that you hear some lines so often that you’ll want to shoot the person who said them. I swear to god, if I hear the Templar say “look at that enemy over there!” or “a worthy foe!” I’m going to stab my ear drums. And I like the actor. (Same guy that played Malcolm Reed on Enterprise.)

The narrative itself actually exemplifies something about Diablo 3 that bugs me about the experience on the whole. There is no sense of dread within the entire narrative. It’s well told, there are great actors, but I don’t give a damn. In previous Diablo games, there was a palpable sense of dread when going to explore to get loot, and that dread was created by the narrative as well as the visual style.

As an artist I can 100% attest to the visual direction of Diablo III on a technical level. The painterly aesthetic is gorgeous, and the palette selection for nearly every frame of the game is a thing of beauty. The lighting is better. The animation is better. Everything is objectively better. Unfortunately, this improved visual direction comes at a cost. The pre-rendered sprite graphics of Diablo I and II are muddy and all of their shadows are black. (Any painter worth their salt will tell you that putting black in your shadows is a no-no.) There was no consideration of palette or color theory in those games. The result is that the older Diablo games have a more medieval aesthetic.  That aesthetic conjures anxiety moreso than Diablo III’s current art direction. So it’s a trade off, while Diablo III is more technically sound, it is by no means “better” than the older games. Ultimately, it doesn’t “feel” like a Diablo game based on the art alone.

What the game “feels” like is World of Warcraft. This isn’t due to the art direction, rather it is due to the always online DRM. This DRM affects the experience by tying you to your ping. That’s right, lag affects the game, even if you’re in single player mode. If your ping is 600 or higher, the game is nigh unplayable, especially at higher difficulties where reaction time is a factor. It’s hard to dodge a projectile if the server says you didn’t move.  You’ll run in to rubber banding, where you’ll be running down a hallway and then you’ll be back at the beginning of the hallway. Unfortunately, this will get you killed as the game’s design is not based around delay.  If you lose your connection, the game will exit completely. This is the biggest flaw of the entire experience. If you don’t have a good connection, or no access to a connection you can’t play the game.

In all honesty, I can’t believe that gamers aren’t more enraged about this. I think error 37 at launch got in the way. This DRM not only affects gameplay, but it sends the wrong message to developers. The game has sold so well, that developers are going to think that always online DRM is perfectly OK when it patently isn’t. How a poorly executed ending can engender enough hatred to qualify a publisher as “the worst company in the world” and yet no one seems to care about the DRM in Diablo III is absolutely beyond me. You know what happens if I’m playing Mass Effect and I lose connection? Not a goddamn thing. I keep playing the game. If there is any reason not to buy Diablo III, it’s the DRM. It will ruin the experience for you more often than it will be convenient.  I was visiting my parents, who have a 1.5MB connection, and any time my father decided to send an email, I couldn’t play the game. That’s terrible game design.

Another game breaking concept is the Auction house. It isn’t near as annoying as the DRM because you can avoid the auction house, but the auction house ruins the game if you use it, and you will be very tempted to use it.  In Diablo 3, the game is “go out, kill bad guys, get loot, kill tougher bad guys” the auction house negates the entire premise of the game by removing the “going out and getting the loot” aspect of the experience. What you find in the auction house will almost always be better than what you will find on your own until you progress to a point where that item is trivial in comparison to the worst items. At this point you can just go to the auction house to find even better gear. So it becomes this trade off, the certainty of getting past a difficult part in exchange for the satisfaction of doing it yourself. That’s because much of the game’s difficulty centers around gear. When I first got the game, a friend of mine, who had been playing like crazy, gave me some crazy awesome gear he bought for me on the auction house. Well, I leveled my Witch Doctor all the way to 60 using the auction house and his gear, and it was boring because of the unearned advantage those items gave me. I was ready to give up and write an all over negative review. Then I started a new character and refused to use the auction house and the game opened up. It became fun.

Playing with friends became more fun and is encouraged because the loot aspect becomes collaborative. They’ll get items that they can’t use, and you’ll get items that you can’t use and you’ll trade back and forth. So when a friend said “hey, can you use this?” the items they offer are useful. They aren’t auction house amazing, but they will be upgrades. Speaking of upgrades, the vendors will actually have items which count as upgrades for you. Crafting doesn’t become useless. The rewards of your adventure are palpable, and beating a boss that was previously destroying you is all the more satisfying when you get the gear yourself.

It’s obnoxious that you have to ignore a feature in order to have fun, but that’s the way it is with Diablo 3.

Your progression in the game will be centered mostly around difficulty rather than narrative. You aren’t progressing to what will happen next, by level 30 you’ll know what will happen next. You’re progressing to see what you’ll get next. You’ll go from Normal to nightmare, from nightmare to hell, from hell to inferno. You’ll play through the game on a single character no less than 4 times. The game’s difficulty and interest derives from the bosses, the elite monsters and the dungeons that hold them. Bosses act as gate keepers for subsequent acts. Elite monsters drop the gear you’ll need to get past the Bosses. Bosses are essentially a gear check system. But those elite monsters are where the difficulty really lies, not the bosses.

Each elite monster has an affix. An affix is a special ability. These special abilities can be defense or attack oriented. The number of affixes an elite enemy can have is dependent on difficulty. When you play through normal, elites won’t seem all that difficult because you’ll only have one affix to deal with. In higher difficulties you’ll be dealing with multiple affixes that often work in tandem to give you a beating. For example, you’ll run in to an enemy with vortex and it’ll use vortex to pull you toward it. No big deal in normal. Then you’ll run in to an enemy that walls. It will summon walls that get in your way, protecting the enemy and trapping you. No big deal in normal. Then you’ll run in to an enemy that can desecrate. They will just make an area that you can stand on without taking a ton of damage. No big deal in normal. All of this is fine on normal, when you only have to deal with one at a time, but on inferno, when you have to deal with an elite that uses vortex to pull you in, waller to trap you, desecration to kill you, and pounds the final nail in the coffin with few Arcane mines, the game becomes exponentially more difficult. There are even combinations which are so devastating, it’s better to log out and back in to reset the game. Stuff like, plagued invulnerable minions waller vampiric. There are some combinations that are just so stupid that the game feels broken when you encounter them. Ranged players complain about Fast, and Melee players complain about firechains. There are just some things that you’re going to see and your first reaction will be “fuck this.”

So, with all of this why play the game? It is because at this point where the game feels like Diablo. I mentioned earlier that dread was a component not found in the narrative. It is, however, found in the gameplay.  While I would prefer there be some sense of narrative anxiety, the fact that the game itself makes me anxious about exploring is an excellent development. A horrific story with boring gameplay is less preferable because if you just want a horrific narrative you should watch a movie.  

Ultimately, the minute to minute design of the game is actually very fun. For all of its faults, the core of Diablo is still there. If you like the Diablo experience, and can forgive the DRM, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy the game on some level. If you’ve never played a Diablo game, and aren’t sure that it would be worth your hard earned cash, then I suggest picking up Torchlight, Titan’s Quest, or even Diablo II. Give at least one of those games a try and if you like that game, the chances are you’ll like Diablo 3. The only problem with it is the DRM. I can’t emphasize that enough. There is just that one glaring flaw.

They’ve even made improvements to the formula. The interface is vastly improved. Item management isn’t as much of a chore. Potions stack (a feature in other games, sure, but I still have flashbacks to the sea of red and blue from Diablo II), and a piece of armor won’t occupy 9 squares of space in your inventory. is, dare I say, an easier way to get friends to play together than LAN. There was much hullabaloo about there being no LAN option in D3. Maybe this would’ve mattered to me when I was younger and all of my friends were condensed and living within a mile of two of each other, but the fact of the matter is, we’re spread out. LAN is impractical for us, and the ease with which Blizzard allows players to drop in and out of games is arguably easier than setting up a network what with firewalls, making sure everyone can see everyone else, and that everything works.

 To be clear, this isn’t praise of the always online DRM. If you’re playing single player, a connection should not be necessary to play.

 There aren’t many options in regards to leveling your character’s stats (other than gear) or abilities (you’ll acquire all of them) rather there are thousands of options on how to play your character.(Some builds are more effective than others, obviously.) Each ability can be assigned to any slot: 1,2,3,4 left mouse button and right mouse button. Every ability can be adjusted based on what kind of rune (if you even assign a rune) and there are several runes per ability. By the end, you have so many options that you won’t know what to do with all of it. In point of fact, half the fun is finding a build that will destroy your enemies. (As a witch doctor player, I have a boner for Zombie Bears and it took me a while to perfect a build for them.)

On top of the numerous options available to your character, the dungeons are almost totally randomized aside from story related parts. What this means is that each experience is different enough on your way to 60 to feel fresh. Sure, after the 100th hour, it will all become kind of samey, but it takes a while for Diablo 3 to reach that point.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) Blizzard is changing the state of the game constantly. The developer has expressed interest in making the end game more sustainable. What this means, no one knows, but it may come to a point where the game will always feel fresh, and the blasé that sets in after hearing the templar say “do you see that enemy over there!” for the thousandth time won’t set in. Blizzard arguably made some mis-steps with their patches. They nerfed attack speed much to the chagrin of many players. Many monk builds were centered around attack speed, and nerfing attack speed crippled some players as to make the game unplayable. (Though, I think these people just had trouble adapting and I still think Monks are good.)

What I’m trying to say is, your mileage with this game may vary depending on what Blizzard decides to do next. I mentioned that I have a boner for Zombie Bears. Well, using Zombie Bears was much more difficult when they couldn’t go up and down ramps, and got stuck in textures and terrain.  Point is, the game is changing, and what will be good one second could be ruined the next and what sucks one moment will be amazing the next. That’s what put me off writing this review for so long.  The experience kept changing enough that I didn’t feel I had a good enough handle on whether or not it’s objectively good when it was first released.

Ultimately, as of July 4 2012, I would say that the game is worth the price of admission. It isn’t perfect. If WoW or other Diablo like games don’t appeal to you, then you’ll probably dislike Diablo 3. I don’t like to give grades or scores. It’s an obnoxious practice. I’ll just say that even with the DRM BS, I was able to get my money’s worth out of it. If you have a 1.5mbps connection, you might want to consider upgrading your connection before you buy it.

Short personal story that may give context for my opinion about D3: I like Star Craft as a single player experience more than a multiplayer experience. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to play it against another person competitively. So, what I gravitated to was the single player experience. That experience was so good and so rich that I actually bought the game for :icongoblinsaint: a videogame curmudgeon. Dude hates fucking EEEVERYTHING. Seriously, he’s the one I gave him my old PS3 and an HD monitor to. Every time I go over to his house it just sits in the corner gathering dust. Meanwhile he’ll see me playing a game, say that it looks great and then tell me that he’s just waiting for it to come to PC. Games like Uncharted. *facepalm* Anyway, anytime I tell him about a game or something he scoffs at it. (It’s kind of obnoxious) But the single player experience of SCII was so good that I bought it for him because I knew that even he would like it. And he did. I did not have that same reaction to D3. I knew that in all likely hood, he would hate D3, so I didn’t even entertain the thought of purchasing it for him. That’s the difference in quality.
Right now I would say that of Blizzard’s modern library SCII is blizzard’s best game, followed by D3, followed by WoW.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Commentary on Bonus Round (not a review)

I think I’ve lost my mind. Every year we have a myriad of game of the year awards. None of them really matter in the same way that the Oscars matter since the videogame industry can’t seem to organize in any coherent and meaningful way. There is no one award that really shows that anyone in the industry has accomplished something. Despite this, there are a few “game of the year” award celebrations that I pay attention to for no other reason than I visit the outlets that promote them.

Specifically, the site I seem to visit most often is and the award show that they promote is called the VGA awards. also produces a web show called Bonus Round. Bonus Round is a show which gathers reviewers and people from the industry to discuss gaming. It’s a bit unprofessional, the host Geoff Keighley interrupts as often as he starts conversations, but it’s a very interesting program nonetheless.

This week they’re discussing the game of the year nominees for the VGA awards. They’re discussing one game per day and whether or not it merits game of the year. It consists primarily of opinions and is far less interesting than discussions of the industry.

All of this isn’t why I think I’ve lost my mind, oh no. This is just a preamble. The reason why I think I’ve lost my mind is that I was watching their installment on Skyward Sword, and I couldn’t believe what was being said given the context.

It’s as though they weren’t paying attention, or I missed something entirely. Wondering which is true has driven me to the edge of madness.

Ok, let’s parse this down:
The first, and most common criticism levied on Zelda during the panel was entirely graphical. Being the only SD game on the nomination list really forces Zelda to stand on its art and not its shaders and polygon count. Many of those on the panel criticized the lack of HD and the art direction. This is one of those things that I just disagree with, but that’s just an opinion. Certainly, there is something to be said for HD visuals. So I acknowledge the criticism’s merit and move on despite disagreeing with it.
The second, and this is where my brain starts to break down, is a criticism on the lack of voice acting.

Let’s not forget about the last Nintendo franchise that added voice acting . Do we want this in Zelda?

Moreover, how important is voice acting to a game really? I’ve played through plenty of games that had voice over work, and what often ends up happening is I skip through most, if not all, of the dialogue. When I play Metal Gear Solid, I’ll often interrupt the voice acting during codec scenes and read through them. When I play RPGs the actor usually only has seconds to say the first two words before I’ve skipped to the next part of the dialogue because I’ve read everything he was going to say thanks to subtitles.

Voice acting, by and large, is a frivolous addition, and only really adds anything if the actor delivers it in a way that is interesting. I mention Metal Gear Solid as voice acting that I skip through. However, that’s only after I’ve played the game at least once. David Hayter’s gravly voice demands attention on the first playthrough, but beyond that he doesn’t really add anything to the actual game part of the fucking game.

Let’s face it, voice acting in games hasn’t always existed. Despite this, there are all of these established experiences where we were still able to connect with the characters in the games that we played despite the lack of voice acting. This is thanks in large part to the fact that people were actually literate in those days. Today, god forbid you be forced to read more than a sentence.

Hell, upon that realization, I wonder why I’m even writing this. The “TL;DR” meme isn’t even a meme, it’s a fact of modern discourse. (For those not in the know, TL;DR stands for “too long; didn’t read.” which speaks volumes about the modern attitude towards reading more than a paragraph.)

Ultimately, the necessity of voice acting is a matter of opinion, and it doesn’t really break my brain in the same way that this next thing does.

The final thing in this discussion that made my brain explode was the criticism on Zelda’s archaic game design. There seems to be this narrative that everyone has bought in to where Ocarina of Time stands at the pinnacle of Zelda design, and every Zelda has just tried to live up to that standard. This bothers me on a couple of levels.

I played Ocarina and Skyward Sword back to back. They do have a similar approach and there are moments in Skyward Sword which mirror Ocarina but they are distinctly different experiences. One game is not equal to the other. Moreover, Ocarina isn’t as good or as tightly refined as they make it out to be. Subsequent Zelda games have built upon, and made those ideas better. I vastly prefer Windwaker or Twilight Princess to Ocarina, despite the fact that these two games use ideas from Ocarina. These people’s interpretation and opinion of Ocarina is colored by nostalgia and there is no argument that anyone could bring to the table that would make me think otherwise.

Additionally, for the past two or three years I’ve been watching as project Natal became Kinect. I’ve been watching as Sony introduced Move. I’ve watched as every single company has been trying to introduce motion control to their audiences. Neither Kinect nor Move has offered games that use motion control in any significant and meaningful way. They’re trying to, but they haven’t. Motion control is so important to Microsoft that a significant portion of their presentation at E3 focuses on the Kinect. Yet, not only was motion control first made popular by Nintendo, so far the only game that uses motion control in a competent way is Zelda. And yet, even given this contextual fact, Zelda is somehow behind the curve?

Finally, here these reviewers are praising Skyrim, Portal 2, Uncharted 3, and Batman: Arkham City while at the same time saying that Zelda is just rehashing Ocarina of Time. Are these people even paying attention to what they’re saying?

First lets look at Elder Srolls V: Skyrim.

Now lets look at Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

hmmm… ok let’s look at Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
(skip to about minute 20)

It’s the same game. It’s the same goddamn motherfucking game! There are aesthetic tweaks, and graphical updates but it’s the same! Hell, Morrowind came out in 2002. It’s 10 years old, and it’s fundamentally the same as Skyrim.

Next, lets look at Uncharted 3. Surely a more modern game will give us a variety of experiences.

Cool, he’s in a jungle, I wonder what he did in Uncharted 2.

Ok, I’m sure Uncharted is wholly unique in comparison.
… goddamnit

Portal2 is a little more obvious

And here is Portal

Arkham City doesn’t do anything significantly different from Arkham Asylum except opening up the space to play in

Now, I’m not going to stand here and say that Skyward Sword is wholly unique. Far from it. Just take a look at the second boss in Ocarina in comparison to the second boss in Skyward Sword.


Skyward Sword

They’re both in lava levels, and you win by throwing a bomb in to the opponent’s mouth.

But if you’re going to levy the criticism that games should be entirely unique from iteration to iteration, then it’s a criticism that you should bring to EVERY game that does it.

Every single game on this list is a rehash. Every single game is building upon what its predecessor does. And Zelda is the ONLY one being criticized for it. The only things Zelda doesn't have going for it is polygon count and modern shaders. That’s it. End of discussion.

This isn’t about game design, this is about looks. It’s shallow, and it’s stupid. This isn’t what the games industry should be about. This isn’t the kind of thing that someone who considers themselves a “hardcore” gamer should be saying. Certainly, this isn’t something that those who are paid to review games should be saying. Skyrim, Uncharted, Portal 2, Skyward Sword, and Batman Arkham City are fantastic experiences despite reusing ideas. They've refined these ideas. They've made these ideas better. They're all worthy of the game of the year title.

Then again, I could be missing something. In which case… I’ve lost my fucking mind.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has issues. I won’t deny that. Anyone that does is a liar. Whether or not it is the best Legend of Zelda is also up for debate. However, there is no denying that it is one of the best and most unique experiences in gaming in the past decade. This is the first game that I have ever played that has fully delivered on the potential of motion control. The only other one that comes close is Metroid Prime 3, and that pales in comparison.

The motion control isn’t perfect. As I mentioned, this game has issues. Occassionally, you’ll get weird decalibrations where when you swing your sword down, it will swing up. It largely has to do with how you are playing the game. Swift jerky movements, aka waggling, will totally decalibrate your controller. Additionally, each movement is a certain amount of frames. So, for example, when you thrust, you activate the thrust animation. If you’re thrusting wildly, faster than that animation can go, then the 1 to 1 sync gets a little off. Oh the game tries to keep up, and makes a valiant effort, but eventually it seems as though your movements aren’t registering.

Basically, every movement should be slow and deliberate. The movement should be from your shoulder, not your wrist. Unfortunately that goes against human instinct. It feels easier to swing from the wrist, and people (gamers especially) tend to favor the easier experience. Moreover, when you miss that thrust, it’s only instinct to thrust again, and thrust faster. You’ll occasionally have opportunities during boss fights which practically invite waggling and after your done, your control will feel screwed up. However, there is a menu option which allows you to recalibrate. The process takes all of 30 seconds.

The enemies are designed around this slow and steady philosophy. You will do better throughout the game if you pay attention to what you’re fighting and fight accordingly instead of just “waggling your way to victory.” Case in point; there are these blobs that are littered through out the game. At first, they don’t seem like much, and you can just flick your wrist a few times to get rid of them. If you cut a large one horizontally, the blob will divide vertically with one “jumping” in to the air and then recombining with its other half as it lands. I had been waggling left and right to just kill those things mid air. I hadn’t noticed that if you cut it vertically, the blob will divide horizontally and not automatically recombine. That way you are able to wittle down a blob to nothing. I had been killing blobs by waggling until I met yellow blobs. Yellow blobs would electrify after a split, so waggling usually led to electrocution. One almost outright killed me because I trying to waggle it to death. Then I slowly and deliberately cut it vertically in to its smallest parts, avoiding electrocution. Suddenly, killing a blob became more than a waggle. It’s like that with almost every enemy in the game. Some enemies will flat out mess you up if you try to waggle.

However, even with that design philosophy in the enemies, the fact of the matter is the motion controls aren’t as reliable as a button press. They simply aren’t. But reliability isn’t what matters. I know that sounds odd, but bear with me. Miyamoto has stated that the reason why the main character is named Link is to suggest a “link” with the player. Here, there actually is a measurable physical link between the player and the main character of the game. You move. Link moves. It’s astounding because movement is psychology. If you move as though you were sad, it’s very likely that you’ll become depressed. That notion is very important to what makes the trade off of reliability for motion control worth it. This game does it so well that you aren’t trading reliability for a gimmick, you’re trading reliability for the opportunity to inhabit the role of link psychologically. This is what games should be doing. This is the power of the medium. The fact that very few reviewers seem to be picking up on this is disconcerting.

It isn’t just the motion controls that make this game feel unique in comparison to Zelda games and games in general. The way the game is set up feels like a massive departure from the 3D Zeldas up to this point. There is an overworld in the sky, but that overworld is largely irrelevant and barren. The majority of the game takes place on the ground. The ground is split in to three sections; desert/time, fire, and forest/water. The entirety of each section is essentially a dungeon, an area that you explore to get upgrades that is full of enemies. In this way, this feels less like Zelda and more like Metroid. And Zelda is better for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very reluctant to suggest that Zelda needs to change all that much. One could argue that the Metroid feel is actually more accurate given the content of original Zelda games. I don’t think it needs the game needs to change. Despite having common elements in each game; hearts, bosses, items, etc each Zelda is an intensely unique experience. The common elements are pretty superficial in comparison to the gestalt of the experience. Right now, even with 25 years of history, and those common elements there is nothing quite like Skyward Sword. Likewise there is nothing like Majora's Mask. There is nothing like Windwaker.

In fact some of these “archaic” features are what make Skyward Sword so great. The boss fights are some of the best ever in a Zelda game. As I was fighting Koloktos I said out loud, “Now this is a !@#$ing boss fight.”

Ultimately, because each Zelda is unique, most Zelda fans wonder where it stands in the "heirarchy" of Zelda games. I’ve been playing Zelda games for a long… long…loooong time. And one thing I’ve gotten used to is people suggesting that each new Zelda is “the best Zelda ever.” The fact of the matter is, there is no such animal. Every single Zelda I’ve played has done many things right, and a few things wrong. For example, I think Twilight Princess' Midna is a far more interesting companion than Skyward Sword's Fi. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Midna outclassed Navi as well. You see, each Zelda game has a few things that it really nails, and a few things that it misses. Each Zelda is its own thing and nowhere is that more apparent than in fan reaction. I’ve seen people online make their own personal lists, and those lists vary from individual to individual. The only thing that there seems to be a general consensus on is that OOT set up the 3D Zelda as viable. Even with that acknowledgement some say Majora’s Mask is the best. For the longest time I said Link to the Past was the best. To be honest, I didn’t really like any of the 3D Zeldas until Twilight Princess.

All of this being said, I now consider Skyward Sword to be the best Zelda game ever made. The control method connects you to link in a definable and measureable way that goes beyond a mere button press. The story is one of the most coherent, well written, and character focused of the entire series. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point, I actually started to cry a little bit. You give a damn about these characters. I loved that the relationship between Link and Zelda was established from the very beginning, and felt very strong. Oh, and how could I forget Groose. He has one of the best story arcs in the entire game. He goes from being obnoxious to being so endearing that you genuinely adore the guy. It isn’t just on the character level where the story excels. By the end of the game the mythology of the ENTIRE series is set up, and you’ll go “ooooh… ok.” How it does this may seem good or bad, depending on your tastes, but I loved it. It gives an explanation for something that has been bugging me about this series for years.

I cannot recommend this enough to Zelda fans. I cannot recommend this enough to non-Zelda fans. If you’ve never played a Zelda game, this is the perfect game to pop your cherry on. Unless a developer pulls out a jewel in the next month, this is my game of the year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

Batman Arkham City is good, great even, but it does not live up to Arkham Asylum, not by a long shot. Every review I’ve seen of Arkham City has been praising it to high heaven. Some even suggest that it is an improvement on Asylum and this makes me question if these people played the same game I did. It makes me wonder if they aren’t getting caught up in the hype.

When Arkham Asylum came out, something I kept hearing was a desire for free roaming in the sequel. I was against this from the start. What made Arkham Asylum brilliant were its pacing, coherency, and the fact that it made you FEEL like you were the goddamn Batman. The player inhabited his persona and became the Dark Knight. This is the primary strength of a videogame. It was the primary strength of Asylum, and anything that undermines this element undermines the game as a whole.

Put simply: You must feel like Batman within a Batman story while playing a Batman game.

When you add a free roaming element to Batman you invariably add a sand box element. In doing so, you remove that element of pacing and coherency and as a result; this ruins the feeling of being the Dark Knight.

The game feels so disjointed. When you’re moving from one mission to another in this sandbox, you are often distracted by side missions which seem just as urgent as the main mission. These side missions are good, in that they feel imperative, but they’re bad for the same reason. It doesn’t make me feel like Batman when I ignore the main mission and it doesn’t make me feel like Batman when I ignore Zasz, or Deadshot, or any other criminal.

Additionally, a free roaming game requires a competent system for navigation, as well as a way to get around quickly. In putting these elements in, Rocksteady effectively did what all free roaming games do, put too much opportunity for navigation failure. How many times in Assassin’s Creed did Altair or Ezio go the wrong way, fall flat on their face, or otherwise look like a loon because of automation? Now Batman is doing the same thing. Precise navigation is a chore. Sure, zipping through the City is easy, but that’s the only part of navigation that is. Numerous times, I found myself dropping from ledges or jumping on to railing when I never meant to.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that the game is bad. Baring the sandbox element and the horrid navigational controls, everything that made the first game great is back, and better than ever in many instances. The brilliant combat is back, and much improved thanks to greater variety. The predator sections still feel gratifying, more so in some instances thanks to some added elements. The boss battles are more prevalent and MUCH better than the first game. There are more gadgets as well.

Well, more gadgets may be a bad thing since it makes the controls ludicrously complex in certain instances, but it wouldn’t feel like Batman without the gadgets, so I give it a pass.

Oh, and the Catwoman sections weren’t all that bad either. I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to her at all. I don’t much care for Catwoman. Many female comic readers seem to identify with her because of the sexual power struggle that goes on between her and Batman. Supposedly, this makes her Batman’s equal. This notion has always bugged me. Not that a woman could be Batman’s equal, but that in order to be Batman’s equal, she has to use sex appeal and supposedly "toy" with him. Not only is this trait not admirable, but I don’t think that this makes her Batman’s equal. Instead, her mercurial nature seems to make her character alternate between fucktoy and annoying bitch in my eyes. Why women find this praiseworthy is beyond me. It's like saying "Yes, we love to be sex objects as long as we get to maintain an illusion of control!" However, she plays well within the game. Annoying character traits aside, she's just as fun to play with as Batman, but she has a presence all her own. (Not to mention, she has a mighty fine backside that you get to stare at. Sorry, I had to say it.)

JUST LOOK! You can't not look at it. IT'S A HYPNO-ASS!

The extras don’t end with side missions, or Catwoman missions. The fact is, there is so much content in Arkham City that it dwarfs Arkham Asylum. Now, I love content as much as anyone, but this just feels likeoverkill. It feels like they were just trying to outdo the previous game.

It’s content for content’s sake.

This may, or may not be a bad thing. In my eyes, it adds to the aesthetic disjointedness of the whole thing. However, if you want hours upon hours of content, it’s here for you. Though, you can blaze through the main quest in about 8 hours that probably won’t be the end of the experience for you. Between the aforementioned plethora of content and the welcome addition of a new game plus, this is a game that you will get more than your money’s worth for.

Ultimately, the decision to make Arkham City a free roaming sand box undermines what should’ve been an otherwise universally fantastic experience. I despise numerical rating systems, but this is the best way I can relate it; the free roaming would change my score from a 10/10 to a 8/10. However, despite this error in judgment on the part of Rocksteady, this is a fantastic game. Buy it. Even with my gripes it’s too good for me to suggest that it’s merely a rental. Moreover, saying that it's not worth purchasing is even worse. Just—don’t expect an experience on par with Asylum.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dungeon Siege 3

Dungeon Siege 3 is a fantastic game; however a few flaws keep it from being rated the best. To begin, the most egregious oversight is the fact that the mouse and keyboard controls are so seemingly broken. If you are planning to purchase this for a PC make absolutely certain you have a controller. Moreover, even if you have a controller, make sure it will read as a Xbox 360 controller. I personally use an Xbox 360 controller emulator for my cordless rumble pad; I will link to a download for this emulator at the end of this review. I’m doing this because I’m going to be mostly praising Dungeon Siege 3, but if you play it with a mouse and keyboard, you will think I have my head up my ass. The mouse and keyboard interface is that bad.

I must admit, I’ve never been really impressed with the work done by Obsidian. I have barely played Fallout: New Vegas because every time I do, it crashes. Never winter Nights 2 suffered from the same problem. In general their work often seems like a slapdash effort using stuff that other better developers have come up with. As a result they’ve carved out a reputation as the “shitty sequel developer.” With Dungeon Siege 3, I was forced to eat some humble pie, because not only are they using their own engine and making a great game, but in 14 hours of playing Dungeon Siege 3 didn’t crash once. This shows that not only do they have the chops for original content; they can run with the best of em.

The story is fairly straightforward. You are one of the last surviving members of a group known as the 10th Legion. The 10th Legion, once servants of the King and Kingdom of Ehb, were “framed” for the murder of the King and slaughtered by Jayne Kassinder. The story begins with an attack on a mansion which held some of the last few Legionnaires. The character you pick is one of the few to survive and escape. From there you go on a journey to rebuild the Legion and defeat Jayne. For those who have read fantasy or play these games, the Narrative will hold very few surprises. As is typical for these games, you are given choices that will rate as either good or evil. In some cases, the choices are shamelessly obvious “good” and “evil” choices. Whereas in other cases, what is good and what is bad is ambiguous. All of these choices affect how the game plays out and eventually ends. All in all, it’s a well spun tale, even if it is a bit predictable.

Dungeon Siege 3 is a looker, for the most part. The environments are generally beautiful. Occasionally, they are a bit dark, and hard to navigate. For the most part, the environments and the majority of the gameplay are very good looking. That is, until the camera zooms in on the characters during dialogue sequences. Not only do they seem to be made of plastic up-close, but they have no life or expression. It doesn’t matter what is going on, the characters generally have the same expression regardless of whether or not they are happy, sad, or excited. It’s disconcerting. It's also disconcerting that the camera never changes position during conversation. It's typical film practice to frame whomever is talking, but in Dungeon Siege 3, you only ever see the back of your character. (I did encounter a bug that had my character facing the camera during one of these conversations, and it was especially creepy since his mouth didn't move.) This is especially annoying since the best looking characters in the game are the main character. Most notably Anjali and Reinhardt are especially well designed. Many of the characters you will encounter are simply uninteresting visually.

The character's general lack of "life" is only noticeable in a few cases, because for the most part, the dialogue is delivered in a very stiff manner. The Radiant Youth is by far the most wooden of all the characters but they are all fairly monotonous. That isn’t to say that the voicing acting is completely terrible. The acting isn’t as bad as say Resident Evil, but it just isn’t as good as something like Legacy of Kain.

Ultimately, what matters is the gameplay, and I have a feeling that’s either a love it or hate it affair. The game runs like an average Dungeon crawler, except for how you control your character. Your character has three stances, each with a different purpose. I played as Reinhardt. He has a range stance, a melee stance, and a guard stance. The guard stance is common to all of the characters, so the other two stances will vary depending on who you play. Each stance gives you access to three separate skills. Attack stance skills use focus. Normal attacks in either attack stance will generate focus. Guarding stance skills use orbs. If you are hit while you are guarding you will lose focus. Focus is essentially mana crossed with rage. Using attacking skills builds up a secondary resource known as orbs. These orbs can be used to empower skills or use guard skills. All of these skills are seemingly meant to be used in tandem. You’ll find yourself stance dancing to be effective. As Reinhardt, his range stance is useless against enemies that get close to him, but his early range stance spell is a point blank area of effect and his early melee stance spell is a lightning bolt. So the way early fights went was “ranged attack, ranged attack, pbae, switch stance to melee stance, punch, punch, punch, dodge away, lightning bolt, range to build up focus, repeat.”And if I ever got low on health, I’d use the guard skill which was a heal over time. The absence of healing potions forced me, as a player, to play more strategically. It was a very engaging system and I can’t heap enough praise on it. Unfortunately, it is slightly clunky, insofar as there is a definite 3 hit rhythm to normal attacks and the system prioritizes finishing an animation as opposed to your input. This clunkyness is what will lead to 90% of your deaths. Thankfully, your ai companion is pretty diligent about rezzing you

As mentioned earlier, you are forced to pick one of four characters. You aren’t allowed to customize race, sex, or anything like that. If you want to play a warrior, you’re stuck with Lucas. This may seem to really kill the RPG aspect of Dungeon Siege. However, you are given a lot of options about how to build that character. Playing Reinhardt, I focused on entropic magic and status effects, but you could focus on his lightning magic and make him a direct damage powerhouse very easily. I’d be willing to bet that there is a way to make him a decent melee character. It really depends on how you milk the system. To me, that screams RPG. Moreover, the gear you get will determine how you play your character. If you stock up on will then you are building a character that relies on their skills rather than their normal attacks.

Finally, and arguably, most importantly, Co-Op. What seems odd is that local Co-Op only allows for two players. I’m told that online matchups allow for four player co-op, but I haven’t had a chance to experience that yet if it’s true. What I can tell you about local co-op is that the second player can pick one of the other three characters regardless of whether or not you’ve encountered them in the story. That character is stuck with whatever points you’ve assigned them. As your friend plays through he/she won’t be able to keep any of the loot they earn. Once again, I am told that the online co-op features separate characters that you build online, but I can’t attest to that. The co-op is designed to be non-committal. A friend can jump in, and jump out without having invested anything. This may turn off some who want to earn something more permanent in their online play.

Two final thoughts. This entire review is coming from someone that HATED the original Dungeon Siege games. Games which I found largely monotonous. If you loved that experience there is a very good chance you'll dislike Dungeon Siege 3. Also, if you are looking for a game to satiate your dungeon crawler fix until Diablo 3 then you are quite honestly better off spending less on Torchlight or the upcoming Torchlight 2. However, if you're looking for an experience that is distinctly different from Diablo, a good story, and some decent multiplayer, then Dungeon Siege 3 is for you.


Graphics: Pretty until you zoom in on the lifeless character models

Story: Predictable, but well told

Sound: Voice acting is hit and miss

Design: Very engaging when using a controller, nothing but frustration when using a mouse and keyboard.

Multiplayer: Ephemeral, player 2 gets nothing out of the experience in terms of loot or character advancement. That being said, it’s still fun to play with someone.

All in all: Excellent game, marred by a few minor issues. I personally really enjoyed it, but I’d recommend at least trying out the demo. Or you could watch the recorded livestream I did.

Here is the first 2 and a half hours. The connection was kind of garbage, so it skips ahead every few seconds, but it should give you an idea of what to expect

Watch live streaming video from morganagod at

Here is the 360 Controller Emulator, it makes it so that the game will read your controller as an xbox360 controller. It works with most controllers but may require configuration. Don't ask me about that stuff though. I don't know all the much about it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mortal Kombat Review

This looks as though it is the year of the fighter. Not too long ago Capcom released Marvel Vs Capcom 3 a somewhat unbalanced but still extremely fun fighter. Soon we will get Street Fighter x Tekken, a match up that I simply can’t quite fathom. Recently, WB released Mortal Kombat 9 aka Mortal Kombat 2011 aka Mortal Kombat is easily the best Mortal Kombat game since Mortal Kombat 2. It may even exceed Mortal Kombat 2.

Mortal Kombat accomplishes this by returning to the aesthetics that made it such an arcade hit. It has eschewed much of the recent mechanics of Mortal Kombat 3D games. There is no 3D arena to fight in, no separate stances, and no adventure mode. The fatalities are brutal, and the overall art direction is much more reminiscent of the earlier Mortal Kombat games.

However, instead of being satisfied with merely remaking an old product, Netherrealms enhanced the product with competition in mind. Every change, it seems, has been made for tournaments. There has been the basic addition of a tag team mode which screams “tournament.” There has been the addition of a super bar akin to Marvel Vs Capcom. However the mechanics of this super bar are interesting and are meant to enhance the combo system in some way either by enhancing your combo or preventing your opponent from finishing theirs.

The combo system is the bread and butter of the new MK. This system has been revamped in to something which requires skill, patience, and is extremely rewarding once you get the hang of it. It allows for custom combo crafting to anyone willing to put in the time and effort to learn the system. It is not like MvC3 or even earlier Mortal Kombats where you could combo simply by sneezing. Long damaging combos are rarely, if ever, caused by button mashing.

A quick sample of the system.

Basically there are basic combos which can be chained together at various points using special moves and juggles. Timing for these transitionary moves is key to success with this system.

A quick tip: you are more likely to input too late than too quickly. If you’re waiting for each attack to hit before you start the second, third, or fourth attack, then you won’t combo.

Both gameplay wise and narratively, Mortal Kombat is essentially a reboot. Narratively, it pulls a Star Trek, by using time travel interference to screw with original events thus creating a new and alternate timeline. Events are changed, but only slightly, so it isn’t a drastic reboot.

The game is brimming with content. The story mode is the most interesting story mode I’ve seen a fighting game. You don’t pick a character and fight through a selection of fighters, instead you follow a narrative which periodically enters in to fights, and you play as the protagonist of the story at that very moment.

The single player experience doesn’t stop there. There is the traditional ladder mode, what passes for “story” mode in other games

There is also the challenge tower, featuring 300 challenges.

Then there is the online features. Unfortunately, I would feel uncomfortable reviewing those as I am using a playstation 3 (I prefer the PS controller for fighters) and currently the playstation network network is down.

I can’t say what the connections are like or what the community is like, and that is really what matters about online play. There are various modes and a spectator feature with an interesting twist. I had been waiting for the network to come back up so I could try this stuff but I'm tired of waiting. I’ll update the review once PSN is back up and I can play these modes.

But I will say, the single player features alone justify a MK9 purchase.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Crysis 2

I think it's best to begin this review by comparing the release trailer of Crysis and Crysis 2


Crysis 2

They don't feel connected do they? Certainly, the Crysis 2 trailer is put together better, but it barely represents the game you'll play.

In 2007 Crytek released the seminal PC game Crysis. Crysis was well known as being a graphical powerhouse. Many bought Crysis just to test out their computer's prowess. It was only recently that I was able to afford a computer that could run the thing on very high at a high resolution. Even then, I still have framerate issues occasionally.

Unfortunately, the graphical showcase of Crysis overshadowed what was, and still is, a very smart shooter. It was a response to games like Doom and Halo, where you have a single soldier that can do everything and they just go forward killing stuff. They're strong, fast, able to jump high, can soak bullets like nobody's business and pretty much mindless. They don't have to really think about the situation, they just go forward. Crysis forced you to pick and choose what you could do at any given moment through the mechanic of the Nanosuit.

Here is a good representation of what I'm talking about. This is a gameplay trailer, and a bit different from what is in the final release of Crysis, but it's a good approximation.

The areas which you were forced to tackle were very open. It took place on an island afterall. You weren't forced in to a certain way of approaching a situation.

These large environments coupled with the gameplay mechanic of the suit resulted in a synergy of unique gameplay. This design was brilliant because it turned each combat situation in to a puzzle. A puzzle with multiple answers and approaches. I haven't ever played through Crysis the same way twice.

Best of all, the story was very well done. It wasn't the most original, but the way it was told made it engaging. The characters were also well done despite being walking cliches. Prophet, Psycho, Nomad, and the various supporting characters all had a certain charisma. The aliens were actually well designed, and refreshing.

There was one thing wrong with Crysis. It ended with a cliffhanger. It left us wondering what would happen next to our protagonists. Finally, Crysis 2 has been released. Does it live up to the original Crysis? Well...

To start off with, the graphics are still brilliant, but it doesn't stress the limits of hardware like the first one did. It's difficult to compare which game looks better because of the differing environments. The aesthetics are completely different. In certain situations, Crysis looks better. In other situations, Crysis 2 looks better. At the very least, the engine runs better. Very rarely do I run in to framerate issues in Crysis 2.

There will be people that may notice technical differences between the two, but those are few and far between. Most who say one looks better than the other are simply confusing aesthetic for visual prowess. I can only say, that I'm pretty good at picking out glaring visual inconsistencies, and I couldn't notice a decline in quality at all.

Ultimately, graphics aren't what matter. The gameplay is changed, streamlined. I'm a large proponent of streamlinging an obtuse experience, but crysis didn't need that. Dumbing it down is flat out wrong. The brilliant gameplay mechanic in the original Crysis has been dumbed down. Instead of being forced to pick and choose abilities, you are only forced to choose between armor and cloak. Gone are the abilities of strength and speed.

The game is also much more linear. You aren't given a large sections of an island to play around on, despite being on a large island, Manhattan. Rather you are sort of forced to move forward in a very linear fashion killing everything in your way. Don't get me wrong, there's room to approach situations in various ways, but it's a shadow of what the original Crysis offered.

That probably best sums up Crysis 2. A shadow of what the original Crysis offered.

The story changes are infuriating. Crysis ended with a cliffhanger. You'd think that Crysis 2 would pick up from, or at very least answer that cliffhanger. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. Crysis 2 pretty much drops everything that was interesting about the original Crysis. The main characters are notably missing with one exception. The aliens are almost entirely different. Even the equipment is notably changed.

The only returning character is Prophet. He is removed from the plot for most of the game and his relevance is terribly explained through flashbacks, and double crosses that you can see coming a mile away. These flashbacks fail to explain what happened to the main characters of the first game.

The aliens are wholly changed. They were floating blue squid things that wore mechanized suits that allowed them to defy gravity. Now they're red, wear mechanical bipedal suits. Some, even look like they are straight out of Halo. Even their technology looks completely different. Hell, even the way they affect the environment is different. In Crysis, they were connected with sub-zero temperatures. Basically the only reason those in a nanosuit could engage them was because the suit protected the wearer from those temperatures. In Crysis 2, without giving too much away, the significance of the Nanosuit and its relationship to the aliens is wholly different.

Here are some comparisons

Crysis 2

Crysis 2 (Almost exactly like the Hunter from Halo.)

It's wholly different. And to be honest, terrible art direction. Yes, these aliens look cool, but there is no consistency, and it throws the narrative off. It's hard to accept that these are the same antagonists, and this feeling is pervasive.

You are essentially given a story that is supposed to be a continuation of a previous story despite missing its protagonists and antagonists.

Even the music is different and much less engaging. In the original Crysis, the music reflected the situation. For example, during most action sequences there was a theme that had sort of a motivating beat. It really complemented the experience. In Crysis 2, the music is barely noticeable. The only time it is noticable is when it echoes Crysis' original music. Though, this only highlights the disappointment.

This is what sums up Crysis 2. It's a disappointment because it doesn't continue any of what made the original great. I'm just scratching the surface with what's different. It's not that different is necessarily bad. Certainly, Crysis 2 is a fun game. However, anyone who played the original Crysis will be disappointed. It will feel like you're playing Call of Duty: Crysis, instead of Crysis 2.