Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Bioshock Infinite

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Bioshock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K
Published in: 2013
Genre: Action
Rating: M

Before this I start this one hour playthrough, I admit I have actually played Bioshock Infinite all the way through. I'm afraid it's colored my opinion a bit in this review. Might end up being like watching the Sixth Sense for the second time around. I'll try not to spoil the ending for those of you who haven't played it.

Let's talk about Bioshock Infinite's manual first because a) it has one (color, nice pictures, actual infomation) and b) writing about later would derail my train of thought. OK, we're done talking about the manual.

I hate to say it, but the cover on the left is more accurate

Bioshock Infinite has two covers - One with the hero Booker DeWitt brandishing a shotgun and another that looks like a turn-of-the-last-century storybook. Apparently there was a controversy over the cover of Bioshock Infinite looking too much like a shooter... but unless I played a different game this is a shooter. You shoot pistols, you shoot shotguns, you shoot ravens out of your hands. It's ironic that Bioshock Infinite has two covers because the game conflicted even from the packaging. Take the start screen for example.

Irrational, you're giving me some mixed messages

The start screen is a serene view of Columbia as old timey music (well, period music as it's supposed to be 1912) drifts through the air to the tweeting of birds. (Do they use their little beaks to peck out 140 characters?) If you let the attract mode play, you get a movie of shooting and burning hands and people getting their faces gouged out to a rockin' modern tune. Just another example of the game's contrary nature. Folksy music vs. hard rock. Calm vs. violence.

I start a new game and here's where I have a beef with the developers. Like I said, I've finished the game all the way through and want to start a new one. The game gives me the option to overwrite the current autosave but not start a new game from scratch. Now, I'm not a "save the game" kind of guy. I like autosave. It saves me effort and doesn't break me out of my game experience. So I guess I lose my previous effort. Oh well, the things I do for this blog. After choosing a difficulty setting (Easy, Medium, Hard) I am shown the Bioshock logo - the wind rips away the American flag trapping to reveal the word "Infinite." A quick load and the game starts with some dialogue between Booker (the lead character) and Elizabeth (the AI character) "Booker, Are you afraid of God?" "No, I'm afraid of you." and a (fake) quote. "The mind of the subject will struggle to create memories where none exist." - Irrational presenting the theme of the game to the player. However it means nothing until you've finished the game and by that point you've forgotten about it.

Actually it's one of the more brilliant things in the game

The gameplay starts with DeWitt catching a rowboat ride from two characters who discuss how their experiment has already already failed. (Foreshadowing - your clue to quality literature) One of them hands a box labelled Booker DeWitt - Battle of Wounded Knee. Inside is a gun and a picture of a girl that reads "Bring to the girl to New York unharmed" on the back. You have to admit, it's a very elegant way to introduce the character - In one stroke we learn who we are, what our mission is, a bit of background of the character, the answer to the first puzzle and even get our first weapon. Bravo Irrational.

The boat rows away leaving me at the steps of a lighthouse. On the door a bloodied message reads "bring the girl and wipe away the debt." Inside we find a basin with the message "Of they sins Shall I wash thee" with "that old time religion" playing from somewhere. I go to use the basin, I see myself in the water. "Good luck with that, pal" says our hero. Already the symbolism being laid on thickly.

When is the answer not "Take All"?

Other than mundane operations (like opening a door or picking up a telephone receiver), the player's only action (other than walking and moving the camera around) is to loot the lighthouse of cash and food. You can also find a cup of coffee to drink that provides salt. Salt? I prefer my coffee with sugar, thank you. IMHO, introducing the concept of health and salt pickups this early in the game is a bit of a mistake. While it populates the world with objects to grab, there's no context or even a need for these items. The player quickly falls into the old videogame habit of "smash everything/take everything." The end result is DeWitt becomes Pac-Man, devouring everything in his path.

Oh, writing "provisions" on the side makes it different

However Bioshock Infinite's rules of interactions are contridictory even on this first level. There's a ladder I can climb at the beginning, but another I can't use in the lighthouse. There's a barrel I can't open on the first floor of the lighthouse but one I can on the third floor. Consistancy is key for these kind of interactions. I'm honestly surprised these rookie mistakes were made. We come across executed dead man has a note pinned to him reading "don't disappoint us" - obviously some bad people are threatening us and they can't be far behind, their cigarette is still smoking... OH LOOK, silver coins I can take!! I loot my way to the top of the lighthouse (this guy left money just lying around!) where the game's first puzzle awaits.

Thanks Booker. Would you just like to play the game for me?

Fortunately, I'm not a moron and realize that the same icons are on these bells as were on the paper in my box. Just in case I am a moron, Booker shows me the card which has the answer on it. The sky grows read and something in the distance honks (like Close Encounters of the Third Kind), the door opens and a dentist's chair unfolds from the ground. The chair converts into a rocket (interestingly for a FPS, I lose my pistol during this event) which blasts me off to my destination - a city in the clouds.

It's like Rio, San Francisco and Liberty Square had a baby

Through my porthole window, I spy Zepplins whizzing by and a giant portrait of Comstock, the prophet. It's a lovely introduction to the world in the same vein as the descent to Rapture in Bioshock. As I descend, I am bombarded with religious messages about a "new eden" and the door opens up into a room filled with water (?) and glowing stained glass image of a John Brown-looking gent pointing to a city in the sky.

Steal from a baby's shrine. That'll get me in good with the good citizens of Columbia

This is obviously a church with its candles and stained glass and heavenly music. Growing up Catholic, I recognize the trappings of saints and prayer candles. I come across two shrines - one for a woman and another for a child, complete with someone's gifts of dolls, toys, wrapped gifts and coins on an offering plate. Here's where I think there was a lost opportunity - in a game that's supposedly frought with morality, there's really no moral choices to made. There's no punishment for taking the money and no reward for leaving it be.

I also find the first Voxophone - recordings that give the player background on the world without interupting the gameplay. It's a method of storytelling first introduced in Bioshock and quickly adapted by just about every other game since. A man tells me I've arrived in "heaven" and I make my way down some watery stairs (how come I don't slip?) to a water and candle-filled chamber (where is all this water coming from? That's a mystery Bioshock Infinite never bothers to answer) where a preacher offers baptism in exchange for passage into the city, Columbia. DeWitt reluctantly accepts baptism (his near drowning leads to a flashback of a black and white office. Someone pounds on the door - offering a deal, the girl for the debt. Opening the door shows New York in flames, being attacked by a fire-belching zepplin.

If I choose Franklin, can I shoot lightning from my hands?

DeWitt finally gets his first view of Columbia - three statues of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin offering keys, scrolls and swords - imagry we've already been exposed to up to this point. Here's another missed opportunity. Unlike Dragon's Dogma which uses the three items as a class selection system, Bioshock Infinite could have had the player pursue three different paths of play - warlike Washingtonian, vigor-powered Franklin or knowledge-based Jeffersonian.

I make my way through a tranquil garden (complete with a "look! Isn't this a cool hummingbird?") - past praying supplicants, coin-filled fountains to reach New Eden square - a Main Street USA city complete with nostalgic music filling the air as cargo trains roll by on arial tracks. Fireworks (who shoots off fireworks during the day?) fill the sky beyond. There's even a hot dog cart though I'll bet their dogs aren't as good as the corn dogs on Main Street. Here's something else that I wish Bioshock Infinite did more of. While populated with people, they don't really have much to say and seem to exist just to show that people actual live here. You don't learn much by evesdropping on them and they never say anything more than once after you approach them. The boy selling newspapers (he isn't even hawking them, just silently waves them around) doesn't give you any information past that "all of columbia celebrates" (the newspaper's headline) For a world so lush and rich, it feels awfully empty and sterile. I would have liked to have seen a little less city and gotten a little more interaction.

Two dollars for a hot dog in 1912?

I enter a store and come across a man getting his shoes shined. "Never hire an artist" he rants. (Is he talking on behalf of the producers of the game?) Nearby is the game's second information delivery system - a kinetoscope exactly like those found in the Crystal Arcade on Main Street. This one tells us about Father Comstock's gift of prophecy. It's charming, but I'm getting the feeling that there's only one development company in Columbia - and it's all owned by Comstock. This guy has giant statues erected of him, has kinetoscopes about his "gifts" and has a massive church in his name. It breaks the illusion of a real place, making it a hyper-real world dedicated to Comstock as designed by the set designers of Batman Forever - heck, even Disneyland only has one statue of Walt in it. It's about this point that I reach the hour mark and I haven't even fired a single shot in this first person shooter.

I think it says it all

So, do I continue exploring the flying city of Columbia or get my feet back on the ground?

What I'd do differently: Most of it I mention earlier - the feeling of blindly collecting up everything in the world without context or need. Other reviewers have mentioned how strange it is for DeWitt to be eating sandwiches out of garbage cans and I found it poignant that after violently killing a man the only object I found on him was cotton candy. And while I appreciate Irrational's desire to create a game with meaning, I feel like I was beaten over the head with it. Look! This game has MEANING! It's DEEP! Unfortunately, it all gets to be a bit too much and ends up feeling like parody. I agree that subtlety has no place in games, but there is such a thing as too much symbolism.

Would I keep playing? Yes, but with a caviat. There's no doubt that any scholar of gaming should play Bioshock Infinite. Irrational has raised themselves to a position of being an "important" game developer. Their games will be discected and analysized for years to come. However that might bite them in the butt down the road. I already feel like Irrational has a "responsibility" to create "important" games and they're trapped in a prison of their own making. (The ending of the game wryly hints at this) I feel like the first hour of this game is the game they wanted to make, the rest of it was the game they had to make. To be honest, I'd rather play several hours of rambling and exploring the interesting world of Columbia than blasting the hell out of it's occupants.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Star Trek

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Star Trek
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Published in: 2013
Genre: Action
Rating: T

I was never really much of a Star Trek fan - much more of a Star Wars fan. While I watched the different series (a nerd's gotta keep up with nerd culture) I never really got into them. Then the J.J. Abrams movie came out - it was exciting and funny and the acting was really good. Sure, there were lots of lens flares but it actually got me excited about Star Trek for once. Another thing that got me excited about this game was this ad. Brilliant.

The cover shows a black and white image of Kirk and Spock brandishing guns while space pyramids attack in the background. If I hadn't already seen the ad, I would have thought I'd be fighting space mummies. I open the case and as seems to be the trend with current games, there is no manual and all the legal info is printed on the back of the cover. I think we have a new winner in the paper efficiency competition.

I get ready to game up, but get a save data space error. After clearing up my PS3's hard drive, the game starts with a flurry of logo - CBS, Paramont, Namco/Bandai, Digital Extremes... whew! It takes so many licensors to make a licensed game nowadays - everyone's got to get their name slathered all over it. I am sent into hyperspace as hard drive data is being copied over. Do they have hard drive space issues in the 23rd century? I hope not. Huzzah! We're finally read to play - as the game loads, a tip is displayed on screen. Ironically, the first tip is how to equip grenades. I never really connected the Star Trek universe with grenades. I guess it's one more thing J.J. Abrams has brought to this new Star Trek universe. Besides lens flares.

Where are all the lens flares?

The title screen features a nice pan-around on the Enterprise bridge with Kirk and Spock standing heroically while Bones frets in the background. The game (almost) seemlessly transitions into a choice between Kirk and Spock. I choose Kirk because I want the opportunity to "make it" with a green-skinned girl. The game tells me a second player can join in to play as Spock. Nice. It also seems you have the option to have online players drop in and out of your game (to play as Spock, perhaps?) A neat idea - kind of like Demon's Souls in reverse with a player actually trying to help you rather than screw you. Let's see how it holds up.

Spock looks like the last guy picked for the kickball team

The game drops us right into the action with lizard-men Gorn blasting away at Kirk and Spock until Spock gets a kooky look in his eye and the two of them go mano-e-mano. But wait, it's 8 hours earlier and Kirk and Spock are playing a perfectly civilized game of vulcan chess. A mystery! As a side note, it's too bad vulcan chess isn't playable. They should have taken a cue from Assassin's Creed 3.

This is why I picked Kirk

As I walk around Spock's quarters, I notice that something isn't quite right about moving the character around. Either he's moving too stiffly or too fast - things are feeling a little... slidey. And as I head to the bridge, Kirk starts to run everywhere. I guess the developers got tired of walking around. That's OK, walking isn't gameplay, I always say. I look to see if I can tweak the sensitivity in options, but nope.

Star Trek recipe: Take a bit of Batman: Arkham Asyslum...

Now a space station is in trouble and they have to go check it out. Reaching the station, there are a few moments of cooperative play where Spock is require to help open a door. Kirk climbs around the world like Nathan Drake, hanging from ledges and broken struts. The game even has it's own version of Batman: Arkham Asylum's detective vision when the Tricorder is used. The tricorder can be used to deactive rogue robot arms, find conduits and hack computer terminals. The characters banter back and forth as they walk to the next location in a manner that reminds me of Nate and Sully in Uncharted.

...toss in some Uncharted...

That's the thing about Star Trek, it's competitent but I get the feeling that developer said "we really like Dead Space's puzzles, Gears of War's cover system, Batman: Arkham Asylum's detective vision and Uncharted's climbing. Let's make a game with all these together." This might cause a more jaded reviewer to dismiss Star Trek, but is that recipe such a bad thing? Not every game needs to be novel and brand new - just well constructed and playable. I would rather play a half dozen competent but derivitive games than one that is just outright bad.

...don't forget to add that sequence I hated in Dead Space.

Spock and Kirk finally reach the bridge of the space station to find out that some crew members are stranded at the reactor's core needs to be saved or something. They reach the core and have to dcuk blasts of heat while creating a path to safety. Yeah, I didn't like that asteroid level in Dead Space either. But it is nice that the player is given a choice to either tricorder the controls open or shoot off some locks. If you get bored or fail too much at one task you, still have another option to succeed. However, my AI Spock gets hung up on some geometry and as I die from a 6th degree sunburn, I reach the hour mark.

There's got to be some Necromorphs around here somewhere.

Do I continue boldly going where no one has gone before or do I end this five year mission right now?

What I would differently: Character controls are the biggest issue with Star Trek. Something doesn't feel quite right. The speed of the player character and his animations go hand in hand with the feel of the play. If the character is too stiff or too loose in their animation, it's going to impact how it feels to move him around. The same is true with aiming - I feel that a good aiming system needs to "snap" - and not have the player's reticule "float" around as their trying to aim. Also, while I admire the game's "let's not mess around and get to the action" attitude, there are some moments where I would have prefered to talk with the green girl or play a game of chess. These little elements help create a world, not just a game.

Would I keep playing: Sure. The game is playable with plenty of variety. I like the universe and characters (the voice acting is top-notch) and the game does a good job representing them. Besides, I didn't get to wrestle with a green girl... I mean with a Gorn at all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Assassin's Creed 3

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Assassin's Creed 3
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Published in: 2012
Genre: Action
Rating: M

I have mixed feelings about the Assassin's Creed series. I bought the first game when it came out and while I really wanted to like it - especially the historical aspects of the world and story, I ended up hating the controls and camera as well as the long horse rides between cities. I didn't even finish playing it. Since then several AC games have come out and my friends have told me "It got better with Assassin's Creed Brotherhood." So now I'm looking at Assassin's Creed 3 and once again the historical setting has caught my attention. Will I end up enjoying the experience or will I want to hire an asssassin to end my pain? Let's game up and find out!

The cover features a character that looks like Enzio but is wielding a tomahawk against a colonial-era British soldier while American minutemen charge about in the background. Doesn't look much like a stealth game to me. Inside, I find the most pathetic excuse for a manual. Not only is it in black and white, but the Assassin's Creed 3 manual doesn't even qualify as a manual... there's no control scheme or information about the game... just the same legal information repeated in multiple languages.

After the requisite PS3 code update, the game informs me that my hard drive is out of space. Excuse me while I clear some files up. OK, here I am again. The first thing upon selecting "play" is the longest loading bar I've ever seen in a game. And we're waiting... and we're waiting... and we're waiting...

Seriously. That bar is redonkulously long

Five minutes laters we're finally at the title screen. Now I have to enter my Uplay passport and download more content. It's a mercifully short process. I enter my Uplay password (I hope I remember it after all these years!) and I finally am able to select and start a single player game. Did I say game up!?

The opening cutscene doesn't start with Washington's troops charging across the battlefield or a mighty British warship sailing into Boston harbor - instead I get a background cutscene about Desmond and the Animus. I guess it's good to get brought up to speed, especially since I haven't played an AC game in years, but to be honest, I didn't buy this game for the sci-fi plot, I want to be an assassin killing Revolutionary War-era soldiers! By the way, I know I'm late to this game so it's pretty funny when it says that Dec 12, 2012 is the end of the world. Hooray! I survived! The game startes with four people driving in a van and then another cutscene where we're re-introduced to Captain Hoodie himself as well as three other characters that must be from the previous games 'cause I don't recognize them. My exciting trip to the Revolutary America begins in a cave with a glow-stick. Maybe I'm going to a Revolutionary themed rave?

Dude, c'mon. at least carry the box for your dad

All I can do is walk and move the camera around in this first area. Another cutscene starts and the "apple" - some sort of physic artifact - is used to activate and open a mysterious chamber. The controls now lets me run and jump (no tutorial on this) and after sliding down a dirty ramp (accompaying by a nice little rolling physics from my glo-stick) we reach our destination - a secret lab and a gate to... I don't really know. I guess I should have played all those other games first. Desmond passes out and ends up on the set of the Matrix. As I run through the tutorial mode, the abstract cyber-shapes start to take form into colonial-era buildings - a nice touch that slowly creates the world around me.

Sweep yer chimney for ya, Govn'r?

I am finally someone else, a tricornered hatted man who is going to the opera house. While the opulent environment is beautiful, it's a shame I can't really interact with any of the characters milling about. There are some nice touches, like lovers hiding in the corner of the lobby but it would have been nice to have the NPCs give me a bit more information about the world like in Bioshock Infinite. As I "fast walk" my way to my seat, I see that AC's patented "pushing through the crowd" technique is in effect. I become gaming's rudest character as I shove everyone out of my way, regardless of race, creed and social standing.

I know I'm a bad-ass assassin, but in my head, this is playing.

At some point, I hit somesort of boundary and everything around me becomes dark and I become ghostly - looking like I've escaped from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. Is this some sort of "Detective Vision" ala Batman: Arkham Asylum? The game is certainly keeping it a mystery as no tutorial information is accompanied by this change. I find my seat and learn that "ghost mode" is "Eagle Vision" where I spot my gold colored target and start climbing. OK, I know I'm in a video game, but I'm a large man climbing around in interior of a theater and NO ONE NOTICES ME.

...Ebennnnnneezer Scrooooooge...

A lockpicking mechanic allows me access to a backstage door and more jumping over the top of the theater stage and to the box of my gold target. One square button press later and my target is dead. A kid sees me and I tell him to be quiet. Yeah, I'm not going to regret killing that kid right now, am I? The alert is raised as I calmly walk out of the opera house to a waiting coach and make my escape. I reach the hour mark at this point.

Press square to murder

So is Assassin's Creed 3 a target for assassination or will it survive this playthrough?

What would I do differently? It seems that many of the controls are enabled before the player is told about them. I didn't like being confused about the Eagle Vision though other than that, the pace at which the controls were presented was good. I would have liked a little more tension while clambering through the theater when I make my escape. It doesn't have to be a full-on chase scene, just a moment or two where I doubt that I might actually get out of the theater. Minor quibbles (other than load times) in the grand scheme of things.

Would I keep playing? Absolutely. The controls seem much better than the first AC, I barely got to assassinate anyone and I still haven't had a chance to play the sea combat gameplay that drew my attention when I saw this game at E3. I can only hope the potential that I see in AC3 is an indication of quality of the upcoming pirate-themed Assassin's Creed Black Flag.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Toy Story 3 (game mode)

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Toy Story 3
Developer: Avalanche
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Published in: 2010
Genre: Action
Rating: E10

One of the most anticipated kid's games for 2013 is Disney Infinity - a Skylanders-esque title developed by the creators of a game that just happens to be on my shelf: Toy Story 3. Will Toy Story 3 give us some clues to whether Disney Infinity will be any good? Who cares! We're here to play through my game library.

Buzz and Woody appear on the cover ('natch) and a full-color manual is inside. Keee-hrist. Was I the only developer who worked for a publisher who wouldn't publish full-color manuals? Sheesh. Oh well, we don't read manuals here on One-Hour Playthrough, so let's game up!

Really? This is the most exciting screen you could come up with?

After the Pixar and Disney Interactive logo, we're given an autosave option. Ironic that a system that saves automatically has to be enabled? Maybe I'm overthinking it. The title screen is very plain. Almost no animation and Randy Newman's "You've got a friend in me" playing in the background. I hope you like that song, 'cause it plays over and over and over again. If you wait too long, the game goes to an attract mode - showing all the different ways to play... and it looks like there's a lot of them. Flying levels, shooting levels, gliding levels, chase levels, platforming levels. Too bad we're only playing this for an hour. It looks like we're going to be missing some cool stuff.

After selecting a new game, I am given the choice between several locations on a board game: Andy's House, Al's Toy Barn, Sunnyside Daycare, Buzz Video Game and Woody's Toy Box. We're going to be looking at the main game in this playthrough and Toy Box in a seperate one since I hear they're very different experiences. I select Sunnyside (since it was the location from the 3rd film) and a loading screen (with some hints and a massive Woody head) appears. Buzz, Woody and Jesse arrive at the daycare where Lotso, the strawberry bear, welcomes us. He tells us that there are many games to be played including a scavenger hunt.

Ride like the wind, Bullseye! (wait, that's the wrong way)

The first game requires me to pop balloons while riding Bullseye the horse. The jumping didn't feel very good and moving at a full gallop while having to move the camera around (all while being timed) was challenging at best, but mostly frustrating. Without any sort of navigation system, trying to figure out how to get up onto tabletops where the balloons were, was also frustrating. It didn't help that the grey bucket platforms I need to climb blended into the environment as I whizzed around. I just wanted to ride a horse fast, I didn't really want to do any precision jumping. Despite this, I manage to qualify, but just barely.

Getting the seatbelt on was the hard part

The next game was another timed racing game - this time on a miniature car. I'm already sensing a theme here. The driving game ends up feeling squirrelier than the horse riding. The car over-corrects too much making driving in a straight line too much of a challenge and the triangle button used to flip the car around takes so long for the camera to catch up that the player misses the ramp they're aiming for the in the first place. After a few tries, I am able to smash enough blocks to progress but it was a frustrating experience.

Where is the claw when you need it?

The third game was a shooter where I had to keep little green men (OOOOOOH!) from crossing a line. Various types of LGM marched towards the camera as I shot them with rubber balls. I admit, this game was more fun because there was only two things to for the player to control - a reticule and a fire button. However, the floaty targeting reticule made for an unpleasant feeling experience. It's a good thing I wasn't judged on accuracy as my "technique" consisted of spamming the playfield with a constant stream of rubber ball projectiles. I managed to pass with a high margin, but I didn't feel very skillful for the experience.

The coffee level is just... bizarre

After proving my "worth" to Lotso, I went to Bonnie's house where Woody was shrunk down (I guess being a 12" doll isn't small enough?) and the room filled with coffee that I had to outrun. Seriously, WTF? I guess this level was the developer's caffine-fueled nightmare when faced with a tight deadline. Not only was theme of this level baffling, the platforming in this level was hard. Not challenging, just hard. The player is told to outrun the coffee filling the room, but has to wait for platforms to appear in order to progress. The controls were inconsistant - sometimes I was able to grab and climb a platform with no problem, other times I would inexplicably bounce or fall off when I thought I had purchase. The camera sometimes got in the way of seeing where the player had to go. At this point, I hit the one hour mark and to be honest, I was grateful.

So, should the toys of Toy Story 3's game mode be collected or thrown out with the trash?

What I would do differently? Camera and controls are the most important thing to get right in a platforming game (or any game for that matter) - if they don't help the player they will most assurdedly cause them to fail. It isn't that Toy Story 3's controls and camera aren't bad, they just could have used a little more time and attention to make them great. Too often a developer decides that the camera and controls are "good enough" for the player to play the game. Don't settle. Strive for greatness, especially with these critical elements of your game.

Would I keep playing? Debateable. If the platforming in the coffee level is any indication, Toy Story 3 will end up being a frustrating gameplay experience. And I'm sure the timed racing games will only get harder (shorter time limit, more elements required to be collected) and to be honest, racing games are not my cup of... ahem, coffee. Like I said, from the attract mode movie, it looks like there's lots of neat content in Toy Story 3's game mode but there are other platformers I'd rather spend my time playing.

One Hour Playthrough: Sly Cooper - Thieves in Time

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of Sly Cooper Thieves in Time from my good friend Jason Weesner, a designer on the game. He sent me a copy after he found out I had been hospitalized with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. If you would like to contribute to combat leukemia and lymphoma and aid in continuing research, please donate here.

Game: Sly Cooper Thieves in Time
Developer: Sanzaru Games
Publisher: SCEA
Published in: 2013
Genre: Action
Rating: E10

Sly Cooper. It's been a long time. The original games were some of my favorites on the PS2, so I'm glad to see him back. The game's cover keeps things simple - Sly swinging in action. No Bentley, No Murray, No clock faces whirling around. None of the usual stuff I'd expect to see in a "time-travel" game. (I'm making this assumption purely on the cover) I open the case for... Waaaaaah? No manual?! Actually, SCTiT does something very smart - they use the inside of the cover to show the control scheme as well as including a digital manual on disc. While it's a little hard to read on the toliet, in this day of publisher cost cutting, it's a sensible solution. But since I never read manuals while I play, let's game up!

Timey-Wimey Vortex

After a quick data load and the (hilarious) Sanzaru logo, we are dropped right into the start/logo screen. Sly's tricked out time machine/van flops TARDIS-style down a time vortex. If you look carefully, you'll see the expressions on the character's faces in the van. Hilarious. I can almost hear them saying "NOOOOOOOOO" in slow motion. I am prompted to create a new game and asked if I want the full story. That's downright considerate since most games want to cram the story down your throat first and then have you play the game. During the load, a brief outline of the original game as well as the percentage of pickups the player has earned is displayed. Once again, smart use of space that most other games just waste on static artwork or worse still, an almost black screen.

The opening cutscene is fully animated, different than the original game's flash-style animations - I kind of miss those simple cutscenes. While dated, they did give the original games a unique look. The cutscenes provide background on the characters, the world and what their goals are. A second cutscene focuses on Bentley, his missing girl friend Penelope and the vanishing pages of the Thievious Racoonus. A third cutscene brings us up to speed about Murray, now a pro-racer. The gang is reunited to find out who is erasing Cooper history and start their plan to travel back in time. A puppet show opens up the action where the gang finds themselves in Paris on the trail of a mysterious samurai sword.

Sly's controls are smooth as ever. He has fun animations (I love a game with a good idle animation) and the character's cell-shaded look has a slightly sketchy quality to it this time around. All the basic moves are there - jump, double jump, swing staff, perch on narrow platforms, etc. Just like the original game, everything that isn't part of the scenery is breakable - yielding golden coins. Time to crate: 1 second.

Paris has never looked so nice
During this first level, Sly clambers along the rooftops of Paris as helicopters shine spotlights looking for our hero. If Sly is caught in this beam, (with a single button press) he is immediately brought back into the game - and I mean, immediately - no "death animation", no "I've been caught" animation, no "waaah-waaah" sfx, not even a load. This game isn't messing about with getting you back into the action! Sly's thieving skills are used right away to walk on cables, climb up pipes and creep along ledges. Anyone who played the original will feel right at home here. A fun mechanic is pickpocketing - where Sly can steal from enemies before defeating them.

One of the game's many navigation systems in action

The game world looks great. It's colorful and lushly detailed with fun details that occur when the player passes by. The game is packed with information systems to guide the player - "thief sparkles", a radar, an arrow pointer, a text message and character dialogue all keep the player from ever getting turned around or lost. My only complaint (granted this is only the first level) is that with all these useful navigation systems, the levels could stand to be a little less linear - at least it has lots of verticalty which keeps the playing jumping around.

Bentley is ready to rock (and roll)

And then there's Bentley the turtle. He might not be video gaming's first handicapable character, but he's one of the best! Bentley was tragically injured in Sly 3 but that doesn't stop him from being awesome. Bentley wheels around in his rocket-powered, bomb-dropping chair. He's a great character who enables one of the game's other modes - an Armored Attack style cyber-hacking game where the player drives a turtle-tank thru a Tron-style cyber-space. It makes me happy to know that characters like Bentley still exist in video games. He's a great role-model for kids and adults alike.
Murray can even pick up and slam enemies and objects
Just as I hit the hour-mark, I finally get to play as Murray the hippo. In addition to being the gang's driver, Murray is an (almost) unstoppable fighting machine. Diving into a group of baddies with a belly-flop attack or just a series of punches provides a nice change of pace to all that sneaking around.

Computer hacking turtle-style

Well, what's the verdict on Sly Cooper Thieves in Time? Should the gang be locked up in jail or set free to continue their thieving ways?

What I would do differently? Not much. Some could argue that there was too many information systems going on, but if it keeps me from getting turned around (always a danger in a 3D game) then keep it in. But I was able to get a nicely rounded survey of the game (all three characters pull an additional game mode) within the same hour. I'm sure I would have gotten further if I had elected to skip the cutscenes.

Would I keep playing? Absolutely. I feel like I barely scratched the surface and am looking forward to travelling through time with the gang. Solid platformers are few and far between on any system these days (well, except for on the DS) and Sly Cooper Thieves in Time is a worthy successsor to this great series. Which is a shame as I learned that developer Sanzaru was closed down just as SCTiT' was released. While I don't know the particulars, I feel that sometimes publishers don't make the effort try to nurture quality developers. It's a real shame that the SCTiT team wasn't given a chance to stick together like Sly and his gang. I would have liked to have seen what they would have come up with.

Monday, April 22, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
Developer: Midway Amusement Games
Publisher: Midway
Published in: 2008
Genre: Fighting
Rating: T

Injustice: Gods Among Us came out this month and while I haven't played it yet, I did remember I have a fighting game in my library where the DC Universe characters (who I love) don't have lame costume redesigns. I actually balked at buying MKvsDCU for a long time, but I wanted something to play with my nine year old son that wasn't on a DS. Was this a good parenting decision? Maaaaybe not. He does laugh and laugh while beating the tar out of me. Ah, kids.

In all those times playing MKvsDCU with my son, I never actually got around to playing the story mode - which is why one plays a fighting game, right? For the story? OK, maybe not so much. So I broke out the disc and started it up. It turns out there was some sort of data update since 2008, when it first came out but then again it is a Playstation 3 game. Fortunately, the game updated pretty quickly and I was on my way!

The game starts off surprising bland - some logos and legal. I do miss the old DC comics logo. That new "folded page" logo doesn't do it for me. After pressing the start button, I see my old pal (and favorite character) Batman standing on a rooftop. One of the Mortal Kombat characters in the background. Is it Sub-Zero? No, he's blue. Kano? No, he's a robot dude. M. Bison? Wait, wrong game. These Mortal Kombat guys all look alike to me. (That's what you get when your distinguishing visual trait is a palette swap.)

Look out Batman! It's... that... guy...

Because I spent too long writing this, I was treated to an attract mode of Superman fighting what looked like either General Zod or Kano. Screw it, they're all Kano. I'm not quite sure why modern games really need an attract mode? For E3, I suppose. Or maybe for display at GameStop? Why not use this to tell some story or even better, some tutorial? Now Lex Luthor is fighting black Kano.

I select one player (selecting one player for a fighting game is like going to dinner and telling them "party of one" - it's slightly sad.) and story mode. I am given a choice of sides - wait, I DON'T get to be Batman? I HAVE to play Shazam? Or god forbid, Aquaman? If I must. The cinematic starts with Superman smacking around Darkseid who escapes via BoomTube. Lex Luthor shows up long enough to be a plot point.

Superman's heat vision creates a plot device

But instead of playing Superman, I'm informed that I'm going to be playing Flash, fighting against Deathstroke the Terminator. Deathstroke cuts a guy's head off (shown off-screen) which is moderately violent, but not outside of Deathstroke's personality. (He is named Death-stroke and he does terminate on a semi-regular basis.) But when the fight starts, I'm thrown back a bit... Flash is beating on Deathstroke and... blood is spraying out with every hit. I shouldn't be surprised, after all Mortal Kombat is getting top billing in this game and it was the poster child for video game violence until third person shooters became all of the rage. Still it feels out of place in the DC Universe. Now, I'm no square. I know "Comics aren't for Kids Anymore" and Grim N' Gritty was all the rage for superheroes... in the 90's! Maybe "turn off blood" is in the options somewhere, but it's a bit disappointing that it wasn't an option from the get-go.

Yeah, it just doesn't feel right

The fighting controls are pretty simple. Like all fighters button mashing can suit you just as well as actually learning how to fight. I haven't played a Mortal Kombat game in awhile, but I notice two interesting mechanics - one is a RAGE meter that charges up allowing the player to get all glow-y and do a super-attack. (Of course, this was done by Deathstroke - I have no clue how to activate this move) The other is TEST YOUR MIGHT where the hero smashes their opponent through a succession of walls into a new arena. Now you're talking!

Next I'm in Gotham where Flash fights cleavage-heavy Catwoman because... Batman is busy I guess. So they fight. The fight is pretty much wash, rinse, repeat. I actually start to experiment with the buttons - shoulder pads block and do a grab move. I accidently found a way to slide under my opponent, though I'd be damned if I know how to pull that one off again. I do notice that the fighters clothes are getting ripped up as the battle progresses - a nice touch. I beat Catwoman and then Kano (at least I think it's Kano, he looks like the Terminator... kinda... and is speaks with an Australian accent.) shows up. The battle starts and SURPRISE! it IS Kano. Well, at least I know one Mortal Kombat character.

Sorry for the Flash. Get it? The flash?

Finally! Batman shows up just as Flash gets possessed by some evil spirit. Here's the thing: If I'm now playing as evil Flash, should I be fighting as Batman? I would assume that the player would always be the good guy. Playing as evil Flash fighting Batman just feels wrong. (Or maybe I just really want to play as Batman.) Pausing the game (to tuck the kids into bed) brings up a move list option! Ah-ha! I open it up to find...a bewildering selection of moves I can perform. I'm not bad at playing fighting games, but there's NO WAY I can remember all (if even a handful) of those moves. Which brings me to my biggest complaint about fighting games on the PS3. The analog stick isn't "sticky" enough to pull off precision down-right-whatever moves and the d-pad is just to darn tiny (and don't ask me to try to do anything with a diagonal with that thing) - I don't really want to invest again in a high-quality fighting stick (I wish I hadn't sold that awesome Soul Calibur stick I had in the 90's) so I guess it's back to button mashing.

Batman, with his plethora of batarangs, martial arts moves and smoke pellets, makes short work of the Flash. I'm given a chance to try again. This time despite being "raged" and "test your might"'d by Batman, I win the fight. However, he sucker shocks me and takes me back to the Bat-cave where Flash turns into Scorpion, that yellow guy from the title screen. I am over come with nerd joy as I finally get to fight as Batman. After another short cutscene (Flash and Scorpion have switched places) Batman squares off against the Joker. I get to fight a proper, non-roided out Joker? Squeeeeee! I didn't get to even do that in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Squeeeeee, I say. Squeeeeeeee.

I'll keep you in suspense to how this epic battle between Batman and the Joker ended as I cross the hour mark. So, what did I think about Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe?

What would I do differently? I didn't notice it when I was playing, but a training mode would be nice. There are so many moves and it takes awhile to master them so having a "safe" location where they can be tried out would be appreciated. Other than that, I don't have too many complaints. The blood is a little disappointing, but that's the license. I can deal with it. At least Superman isn't killing anyone... well, as far as I know.

Would I keep playing? Sure. The story, while not riveting, was interesting - at least I wanted to see who the other playable characters were. And it satisfied the DC fanboy in me. If I had an opponent, I'm sure this game would capture my interest longer. Fighting games are vastly different experience with two players and talking smack with your friend on the couch goes a long way to make an OK game great. The characters looked and acted how I would expect them to and while I don't really care about the MK characters, they weren't so intrusive to hamper my enjoyment. I'm sure someone, somewhere LOVES Scorpion as much as I do Batman.

One Hour Playthrough: Catherine

I'm going through my large game collection, playing all of my games one at a time for one hour at a time.

Game: Catherine
Developer: Atlus Personea Team
Publisher: Atlus
Published in: 2011
Genre: Horror/Puzzle
Rating: M

I picked up Catherine because I was intrigued by the promise of an "adult (not porn) themed" horror game. Catherine's developers say the game is about relationships and how scary they can be. Thanks to either the marketing team or some other knucklehead, the game's cover doesn't say "horror". Unless you find plunging into the bosom of a gigantic blonde terrifying. Inside I find another gorgeous full-color manual that I will not read for this review.

I fire up the game which starts with a squishy sound and the Altus logo dripping blood. OK horror game. Then a flowery Dolby logo - uh, not horror game? - and finally a sheep-man falling out of the sky to bloodily splat onto a stone platform. OK, horror game. The man from the cover (the hero Vincent) is barb-wired to a platform, calling out to an ambivalent woman (Catherine) - Catherine has an animated attract mode which features many shots of the main character screaming in horror in between shots him with young women. OK, so maybe this will be scary.

A sexy blonde (from the cover) drops down and I'm given the option of three different modes: Golden Theater (the main game), Babel (I assume a puzzle-only mode) and Configuration. The male narrator is a bit cheesy. This game is definately giving mixed messages. Am I supposed to be scared or not? Then I'm given three difficulty levels - interesting how the easy mode emphasizing it being for players that are only interested in the story. When I make my selection, I am told to "grab a snack" and enjoy the strange tale of Catherine. Grab a snack?! How long am I going to be watching the opening cutscene?

What follows is the opening to "Golden Playhouse" (A "Playhouse 90" reference? Way to keep topical, developer!) which established that a) we're watching a TV show? and b) introduces the concept that if you fall and die in your dreams, you die. We meet our hero, Vincent, a nice guy who is going to run into some trouble. Then the TV show's "credits" run but they're the name of the characters in the game, not the game's creators. I'll give Catherine this, they're going through a lot of effort to sell the idea that this is a TV show (A few of the game's principals - director, music, designer) get credit. I can only hope everyone else who worked on this game will get their credit in the end.

Can you withstand the horror of... pushing blocks?
Vincent arrives in the first level - he has to climb a collasping tower of blocks, pushing and pulling blocks into place to reach a door at the top. A narrator and second character (who sounds like they're going through the same experience as we are) gives us instructions. Well created instructional images show the player how to manipulate the blocks are also provided. A bonus is provided for how many levels are still left when you exit at the top of the blocks.

Vincent awakes from this "bad dream" (Hey, I didn't too bad, I scored a "bronze" award) in an animated cutscene. Next another cutscene - this time a "puppet show" style cutscene between Catherine and Vincent discussing their long-term (and stagnant) relationship. The game allows the player to move the camera around in these scenes, but there's really nothing new for to see, no new information is revealed.

I hope you like cutscenes. Lots of cutscenes.

This format continues in a scene between Vincent and his other friends where they discuss the mysterious death of (friend?) Paul, the bad dreams and Vincent's relationship. A ticking clock fast-forwards, introducing the player to the cell phone mechanic - where the player can leave one of three (presumably the "good, bad and noncommital") answers to other characters. When the player gives one of these answers, a "good/bad" (designated by a good or evil cherub) meter is shown. Personally, I don't like these immediate moral judgements in games. I would have rather tried to blunder through the character's relationship rather than meter-jockeying for the best result.

Oh by the way, you know how it's really fun to get texts and e-mail in real life? Well now you can have that fun in a game. Except if you text the wrong answer to your girlfriend, your good/bad meter can go up or down. The game promises "lots of this". Good thing I'm only playing for an hour.

A new mysterious blond shows up and we are abruptly taken into a nightmare (another level - the prison of despair) with more complex types of blocks and configurations. Once the puzzle is complete, Vincent finds himself in a strange landing populated by other talking sheep. He looks like a sheep to them and they look like sheep to him. If Vincent can reach the church, he can survive (again with these not-so-subtle metaphors) - after talking to the sheep (who teach him techniques about climbing) Vincent enters the confessional where he has to take a junior highschool quiz about marriage. I guess there's a benefit to telling young gamers about the dangers? seriousness? of marriage, but with a M rated game, how many young unmarried gamers are going to be playing a puzzle game about the scariness of marriage? My guess = none. The game reveals what other players voted after the fact ala the Walking Dead.

I wonder what the correct answer could be? Is my wife in the room? Just kidding honey!

I reached the hour point just as I was working my way up another puzzle and dying quite a bit. When the player runs out of continues, poor cold dead Vincent is found in his bed.

Love is a bitch, indeed.

What I would do differently: The TV show within the story strikes me as a bit odd. Kind of like how Assassin's Creed isn't really about an asssassin from the middle east but rather about a white kid getting his mind zapped in the future. I feel like someone was nervous about the game's content and suggested the tv show context. Then again, it's a Japanese game. They do crazy stuff like this all the time. However, getting rid of the TV show context would remove at least five to ten minutes of cutscenes - not a bad thing. The controls on the other hand can be moderately squirrelly. I fell to my death many times over thanks to it. The player needs to "snap" to the grid more like another great block pushing playstation game IQ: Intelligent Qube. I chalk that up to the nice player character animation - sadly, precision controls and good animation do not mix. Finally, difficulty. Let the player win a few rounds. Even if it is "normal" difficulty, I wouldn't expect to start failing so much until the fifth or sixth round. By that point the player is invested in the game and won't be so ready to quit.

So, would I keep playing? I don't know. I mean, the animation in Catherine is great and the story could be intriguing but the puzzle gameplay is pretty hard (I lost all 8 of my retries on the third level) - maybe I could switch to "easy mode" but my gamer's ego won't allow for it. So I guess Catherine goes back on the shelf.