Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of XBLA

There are a lot of great, epic games this holiday season. But rather than looking at the biggest games of the year, what about the small ones? Here's some of the best games on XBLA.

Every Extend Extra Extreme: Get past the stupid name - the game's spectacular. It's an adaptation of Every Extend Extra for the PSP, which itself was an adaptation of Every Extend, for the PC. The basic mechanic is that you control a small cursor onscreen that you can self-destruct. Anything the explosion touches also explodes. The goal is to create crazy chain reactions, and then collect the resulting powerups during the "safe" time you have after your cursor respawns.

E4, for short, does the "Q? Entertainment" thing of having a strong tie between the music and the visuals. It's also a huge improvement over E3, due to a much stronger connection between the music and the gameplay. Blowing up the cursor on the beat increases a multiplier, which in turn creates a nice bit of tension between your "safe time" running out, the on-screen enemies being in the right place, and hitting the beat. It's one of those games that's incomprehensible at first, which is a shame, because once you get it, it's the kind of game you'll sink hours into.

Carcassonne: A spectacular translation of a great board game, Carcassonne for XBLA's actually an improvement over the game it's based on. All the scoring is automated, all the available moves are clear, and the focus shifts entirely to the strategy. The graphics are pleasant without being overwhelming, and the game is deep enough to sustain hours of interest. One of the best things about it is that you can play multiplayer either online or off, since there are no "secrets" you have to protect from the other players.

The one problem with Carcassonne is that, as far as I can tell, you need multiple controllers to play with multiple people. This is a real shame, because there's no reason you couldn't just pass the controller from one player to the next. I wonder if you could play with the Rock Band controllers?

Catan: Unlike Carcassonne, Catan can only be played multiplayer online, since it's based on a game where you need to keep some cards secret from the other players. It's a shame the Dreamcast VMU died a horrible death, because Catan would be the perfect game for those little screens. That aside, Catan was one of the first boardgames to really be successfully translated to the console, and it's a huge success.

The trading interface is intuitive and easy to use, the opponent AI is challenging and fun, and the graphics are either a very literal interpretation of the board game, or a slightly less usable but nicer looking adaptation of the game's tiles. Even if you've never played Settlers of Catan, I'd recommend checking this game out, and playing the trial until you win a match. The mechanics are relatively simple (trade resources until you can build stuff), but the strategy can get rather complex. Both Catan and Carcassonne are tremendous values on XBLA, cheaper and in many ways better than their boardgame originals.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition: Pac-Man's original creator, Toru Iwatani, apparently retired after PM:CE's release. It's fitting that Iwatani ended his career with the only game to have really improved Pac-Man at its core. PM:CE is in many ways a familiar game - your little yellow chomping circle runs through mazes, avoiding ghosts, eating pellets. The difference is that now, the mazes are dynamic. Each screen is split in two - the left side and the right side. When you eat all the pellets on one side, a fruit appears on the other. When you eat the fruit, the empty side of the maze changes.

Because every game is now done under a timer (the standard game only lasts five minutes), this forces players to find the best strategy for their situation to maximize their score. Do they clear as many maps as possible, to get the most valuable fruit? Do they eat as many ghosts as possible, trying to chain many together to get a huge multiplier? The game's pace keeps the frenetic craziness of the original, and running through a junction, avoiding ghosts by mere pixels is commonplace. It's crazy fun, and a genius reimagining of a familiar and accessible classic.

Puzzle Quest: If you never played Puzzle Quest on the DS or the PSP, it's on XBLA (as well as Wii and PC). XBLA is a faithful, high-res translation of the wildly original combination of RPG and Bejeweled, except now you can play against others online. It's a strange combination of games, and I'm not sure that the casual gamers who are into Bejeweled will actually find Puzzle Quest particularly accessible, but regardless, it's hugely addictive, and the RPG elements add an additional layer of strategy to the mix.

The one weird thing about Puzzle Quest is that if you're used to Bejeweled, you'll try to set up the "next" move. If you do that in Puzzle Quest, you'll set the enemy up for success! You have to try to sabotage the next move while setting up for the move after that. It's an odd change, and takes a little getting used to. But that said, if you're anything more than a super-casual gamer, Puzzle Quest is well worth playing.

Undertow: I haven't played this yet, but will be shortly. It's an odd mix of dual-stick shooter and control-point based multiplayer. I've heard lots of good things, but haven't yet given it a shot. Anyone given this a go, yet?


Anyway - that's my pick of the relatively recent XBLA bunch. There've been a lot of stinkers recently - Word Puzzle comes to mind, and I really didn't like Space Giraffe (though it does have a passionate fanbase). Looking forward to Rez HD.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mass Effect

I almost skipped Mass Effect. In a season utterly jam-packed with extraordinary games, Mass Effect was almost the only game I could put off without some ill effect. There were good deals on Call of Duty and Mario, COD and Orange Box were Live-enabled, and Assassin's Creed was a game from one of my favorite developers that I'd been looking forward to for years.

Mass Effect, on the other hand, would require a substantial investment of time, was strictly single-player, and well, I had a ton of stuff to wade through. I could put Mass Effect off 'till January, or whenever it got cheap. The only reason I picked it up when I did, honestly, is that the Limited Edition looked like it had a reasonable amount of interesting stuff, and it was getting impossible to find.

So, when I started playing it, it was ... it wasn't the right time. I was in the midst of five or six other games - shorter, focused, highly polished experiences. Mass Effect, on the other hand, was a game of tremendous scope, whose core mechanics simply aren't as polished as a game like Call of Duty 4, which has had a couple iterations to get it right.

The camera was the biggest problem, at the start. They've clearly cribbed a lot from Gears of War, but they did it really inelegantly. The camera appears to track with the character's locator, which means, for instance, when you're walking down stairs, the camera travels along the steps, instead of on a smooth slope down the steps. This results in the camera "bouncing" as you move down the steps in a way that feels completely robotic and wrong. The problems don't end there, but it's weird, because it's a lot of small problems that make the thing feel really unpolished and "off."

Still, the world you're dropped into has clearly had a lot of effort and love poured into it. Science fiction these days is really difficult to pull off. A lot of what people associate with sci-fi has become really cliche. Between Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner, it's difficult to find a niche that feels original. Mass Effect manages to walk a really interesting line between Star Trek and Blade Runner, with a vaguely dystopic utopia. It's like if Syd Mead had made Blade Runner a nice place to inhabit. The music's Vangelis influences are obvious, almost from the start.

So, a mixed start. I was enthused about the story, but not all that jazzed about the game's presentation or mechanics. The presentation problems were legion, but it really boils down to a single problem: Mass Effect is a really deep, interesting game with a lot of systems that work together. The character and weapon customization have huge impacts on how you deal with combat and conversation, which are what you're doing the vast majority of the time. The problem is that there's almost no introduction to how to use any of the stuff.

For instance, Mass Effect gives you a relatively standard choice at the start of the game: choosing your character class. There's a short text description that tells you what your class does and why, in an effort to help you figure out which class is appropriate. The problem is, you have to make this completely irreversible choice that defines how you play the game before you've had a chance to experience any of the game at all.

So, when I chose the "Infiltrator" class, the description appealed to me - you're basically a sniper, and you'll have to work to find advantageous positions, and use your distance advantage to its fullest. Sounded great. But in practice, at the start of the game, it's incredibly frustrating. Sniper rifles are hard to use, and as a result, I died. A lot. "You suck!" you might say. You're right. I did suck. I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I got into combat, I just keeled over dead within ten seconds.

Part of the problem was that fundamentally, I didn't know what Mass Effect was. I assumed it was like Knights of the Old Republic at first, but it also looked like Gears of War. I didn't know how to play it. If I approached it like KOTOR, I died. If I approached it like Gears, I died. Over and over again.

The second problem was one of choice. The game gives you a couple things you can do, right after the intro. You can go to one of two planets, and you're free to make the decision however you want. The problem is, one is radically more difficult than the other, and I had no way of knowing which was which. If they told me, I was confused by this giant tidal wave of information - the new galaxy map, the new ship, and a wide variety of game mechanics that I was unfamiliar with.

So, I was in way over my head, but had gotten to a point where I could no longer turn back, and I was still completely confused as to how to actually play the game. The end result was that I died, over and over again, for reasons I simply couldn't understand. After a couple hours of this, I hated the game. It felt broken. It felt unfair. It was absolute misery, coupled with the fact that there's almost no intelligent checkpoint system, and if you weren't careful about saving, you could often lose an hour of playtime if you died. And since I'd die in a single hit during combat after ten seconds, it meant that every time I entered combat (where you couldn't save), if I hadn't saved before, I lost a tremendous amount of time.

Frustrating. Extremely frustrating - to the point where at this point, I strongly considered breaking the disc in two, throwing it out the window, and never playing it again. The lack of checkpoint saves felt like a relic out of the mid-nineties. The combat system felt utterly broken and horrible, and as much as I was enjoying the story, I hated everything else about the game.

If I had to rate the game at this point, it would have been something like a B:15. Like Top Gear, "Ambitious, but rubbish." (Though Top Gear would merit a much, much, much higher score - an A/100, without a doubt.)

I thought to myself, "How can anyone tolerate this crap?" It was such a disaster, I couldn't understand how it could be getting decent reviews, even if they were all talking about the fact that it was great in spite of itself. Penny Arcade even did a post on how Mass Effect dumps you into the ocean without ever telling you how to swim.

So, I gave it one more shot, at 2:30am one night. I read some board posts at GameFAQs trying to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong during combat. Lo and behold, after reading about a dozen posts, I got it. I understood that you had to target the biotic powers using the RB pause menu. I understood how the shields and health actually worked. I understood the weapon upgrades, the importance of cover, and how to properly use my teammates.

It was a sea change. Finally, the combat made sense. The inventory system made sense. The frustration melted away, and finally, the story and the mechanics worked together to form something that felt right.

Finally, I could experience the universe, the conversation system, and everything the game had to offer without seeing it through a veil of seething hatred. The plot and writing are excellent, if not extraordinary. In Mass Effect, Bioware's done the nigh-impossible. They've made a unique, utterly compelling sci-fi universe.

Post actual introduction to how the game's supposed to work: A/85.

The game's still got a lot of rough edges. The camera still sucks. There are a lot of really bad animation transitions. The load times take forever. The binary choice between good and evil can be a bit tiresome. But the things that are good are really good. The character animation, when it's not popping, is awesome. Their facial animations are excellent, and do a great job of making the characters feel real and believable. There are choices that matter in the game. Choices that don't feel like arbitrary bullshit, and that emotionally involve the player.

That sense of involvement makes the game extraordinary. You become the lynchpin of an incredibly epic story, and it leaves a lasting impact. There's a saying in the game industry - "A late game is late only until it ships, but a bad game is bad forever." To rejigger that a bit, Mass Effect's frustrating mechanics are only frustrating until you understand them, but the storyline is totally freakin' awesome.

When you play through the first time, play as a soldier.

Scoring and Discussion

So, this is a game review site. It will be updated on a weekly basis, every Sunday evening with a discussion of whatever games I've played this week. It's not an objective review site, it's purely my opinion, biases and all.

The "scores" which I'll use to rank games are relatively arbitrary, and more of a gut feeling than anything else. They're made up of two parts. The first, a letter grade A-F, is a measure of the game's "innovative" quality. The second, a number grade which will use the whole spectrum from 0 to 100, is a measure of how well the idea was executed.

For some basic reference:
  • Ico: A/100
  • Drake of the 99 Dragons: C/04
  • Call of Duty 4: B/100
  • Final Fantasy X: C/30
  • Super Mario Galaxy: B/90
  • Bioshock: A/90
  • Assassin's Creed: A/85
  • MySims: A/12
Some of my favorite games:
  • Ico
  • Grim Fandango
  • Half Life
  • Rez
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
  • Rock Band
Some of my least favorite games:
  • Final Fantasy X
  • Most sports games
  • Most jRPGs
Basic biases:
  • I absolutely adore Xbox Live. I think it's the best thing to happen to games in decades.
  • I'm not a huge fan of the Wii. Though it obviously has potential, its going to be a while before people really understand the limitations of motion control, and make another game that's as successful as Wii Sports.
  • I've been actively irritated by how Sony's handled themselves the last two generations of hardware. Every piece of Sony game equipment I've ever bought has failed.
  • I loved the Dreamcast. This may account in some respect for my anti-Sony bias.
  • Despite my anti-Sony bias, many of my favorite games in the last generation were on the PS2, so credit goes where credit is due.
Not every update will be a review of a single game. It may simply be me talking about whatever suits my fancy, game-wise, but I'll make a concerted effort to actually update regularly, and keep the posts at least marginally interesting. If there isn't a review, it'll be something game design related, most likely.

For the record, I work for a game company. I won't be discussing the game I'm working on, for obvious reasons, and when I talk about design stuff, I'm not going to be talking about work-related design, which means there may be weird holes in subjects I'll talk about, but there you go.

I have a personal blog, which does not reside here. If you came here looking for that, please send me an e-mail. If for some reason, you don't know my e-mail address, post some way for me to get in touch with you, and I'll make sure the connection is re-established.

Now... let's see how this goes.