Sunday, March 30, 2008

Boomshine: A frivolous (and fun) romp

I just checked out Boomshine (a free Flash based game). It was easy and pleasant to play, had a decent initial learning curve, and had me hooked until I the learning curve went from... well... a curve to a straight vertical line.

The object of the game is to trap a target number of bouncing balls on the screen. You have one chance to detonate a bomb that expands to a maximum blast radius and then fades. Each ball that enters the blast radius explodes (expanding and shrinking) and this can cause a chain reaction. The idea is to place the initial explosion in a spot that will cause a chain reaction that eventually traps the desired number of balls before the chain reaction fizzles out.

This mechanic has been done in other games. The use of sound, music, and color in this game were the differentiators: The resulting venn diagrams of color were really cool, and the sound effects of the detonating balls complimented the music very well. It was pleasurable to set the initial bomb and then just sit back and watch.

At first, the game reminded me a bunch of Stair Dismount, a physics simulation that was incredibly addicting. You simply positioned a rag doll body, watched it fall down stairs and take damage, and then restarted the game -- but the next time tweaking the positioning so that you could increase the damage.

However, at the highest level of difficulty I was able to attain, it started to seem less like an exercise in aiming and precision and more like an exercise in chance. I could decipher a few principles that seemed to serve me well as far as where to place the initial blast. However, the resulting chain reaction seemed to be nothing more than a roll of the dice in terms of how predictable the outcome would be. I was never able to complete the level, and even though I got agonizingly close (54 out of 55 balls detonated), as often as not I would end up with far fewer. It was still fun to watch and listen to as a simulation, but ceased to be a game.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Whoa... The Darkness punched me in the gut in just the right way

So, I was meandering through The Darkness and was unsure whether I would keep playing. I really liked the demo and heard good things from a friend. But I just wasn't getting into the core game play (shoot out the lights, use your powers in the dark).

Then I entered the blown up orphanage. What an awesome sequence.

Cool ghost apparitions that helped narrate the back story in ways that were compelling and involving enough to make me watch even though I didn't really need to.

And then the sequence where the darkness took over and forced me to watch a rather difficult scene -- the death of my childhood girlfriend -- and then, via a mirror, my own suicide. Let's just say that I was hooked on the story.

It reminded me very much of Planescape: Torment in that this was my character's memory of the first time he died. In other words, dying many deaths is part of this game and of who my character is. He started off dying in the opening credits sequence and has died again at the conclusion of the first act.

I was just left at the beginning of the grisly second act (more executions) and I can't wait to figure out what comes next.

Update: Even better. I spawned into a WWI trench. The soldiers are all reanimated (and won't finally die until you eat their hearts, unlike in the modern world). It reminds me a bit of Eternal Darkness where you play different time periods in the same game as the same character.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Virtua Fighter 5: Demo Notes

I'm not a big fight-game fan. But I figured I'd give Virtua Fighter 5 demo a whirl.

At first glance, the game shell menu seemed excellent. It was easy to tell what I had selected, what was not selectable (grayed out as unavailable in the demo), and there was ample persistent help text to explain what I had selected. However, there were a couple of dings:

  • The persistent help text did contain some jargon (e.g., fight against "CPU-controlled opponents").
  • There was no persistent help text for the Quest, Dojo, VF.TV, Customize, and Options menu selections. They were simply unselectable. There was no way to learn what these features are -- which is a shame because you'd think this would be a great opportunity to educate me about all the cool features you'd get in the full version.
The game play, at its core, seemed about as fun as any other fighter. It's very rewarding to kick the crap out of opposing fighters in stylish ways. Also, while the "vs. CPU" demo was very short, you could play an unlimited number of 1v1 battles against a friend -- which makes sense as this is the core way to experience a fight game.

A few complaints I have:
  • Fighter selection: There's no way to learn about what kinds of fight styles the characters have at a glance. The martial arts style is cryptic for those unfamiliar with the genre and there are no full body shots that would suggest how the fighter would behave based on physical appearance.
  • The single player demo is very short -- 3 easy rounds and back to the main menu. While there is a cryptic message about trying some custom options using the RB and 2p select (I have no idea what this meant), the experience wasn't anything I could sink my teeth into.
  • I didn't like the countdown timer during fighter select. I wanted to try and learn more about the various fighters, but when the short timer ran out it simply selected the fighter that I was currently hovering over and started the bout.
  • I also really dislike the trend in fight games (not just the VF series) where they use one system of colored circles to indicate Punches, Kicks, and Guards... And a different system of colored circles to indicate face buttons (A, B, X, Y). So you get weird mapping like the Blue X button translates to Green G icon (which means Guard); the Green A button translates to the Blue P icon (which means punch). When you look up combos they are displayed in the icon circles -- which means even though you see a green circle (making you think A button on the controller) it actually means press the Blue X button (guard). So confusing.
I could see goofing around in this game with friends, but I already prefer Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive so it would be hard to justify jumping into this series as it doesn't seem to out shine them in any ways (e.g., Soul Calibur has cool weapons and outrageous characters; DoA seems a lot more flashy in terms of how easy it is to do cool combos and special moves).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thrillville: Off the rails Demo

So, Thrillville is a kids title. It starts off promising enough in terms of offering cool character customization. The intro movie is a little long, but it looks like a tycoon-type game where you get to build roller coasters. Sounds like fun to me.

There's no real learn-as-you-play:

  • On game start, you get 3-4 billboards (A for next).
  • While this was brief enough, it was still lame. There's no reason I couldn't discover those hints while I wandered through the level. Non-grounded hints have limited value.
Game play:
  • The 3rd person exploration camera is nauseating: It rotates too quickly, has too much gravity, and snaps back too quickly.
  • I jumped into the bumper car game
    • Not all that fun (no good sound or force feedback)
    • It was impossible to tell how I was doing compared to my competitors (I have no idea why I came in 5th)
    • When you only have two buttons for controls on a car racing game (accelerate and brake) why not have the buttons duplicated with RT and LT as well (standard racing convention)?
  • Now I'm on roller coaster. I can look around with the stick by default, but really the best view is from the external cam.
    • It's not all that fun -- I didn't build it and am not very attached to it.
    • I sold it.
    • I want to build a custom roller coaster, but I'm not sure I can. I seem to only be able to choose from prefabs.
  • I tried a dirt bike challenge. It was kind of fun in the way that some free web games are fun (mastering a new skill). But it's not something I would expect to pay money for.
  • It looks like the game is more of a tycoon game that, if you want to, you can choose to ride the rides if you get bored of the standard god-game component.
All in all, this seemed much more like an XBLA title. I would really want to test it with kids (10+) to see whether they would find it more exciting than I did -- or whether this is more of a marketer's idea of what he/she thinks kids might like.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Club: Demo Impressions

So, The Club has been getting some good press. And, I must admit that I was intrigued based on the trailers I have seen. The game looked humorous and like it might have a fresh twist on the shooter genre.

My overall impression after playing the demo was that I was basically getting Doom crossed with PGR. This might appeal to some folks who like to strive against themselves (and others) in various race-like competitions, but to me I found the experience lacking. I guess I really do require two things from my shooters these days: Great story and No Health Packs.

Story is a given for me. I need to be immersed in the world and feel like I have an emotional tie to my character.

No Health Packs is really just a generalized reference to the fact that I think it's time for shooters to leave some of their old school conventions behind (e.g., shields, health bars, and health packs) in favor of the new guard conventions (world desaturation, regenerate while hiding). I realize that the same systems are in play -- that the world turning red is the same thing as my shields being depleted, and my response should be the same "take cover". But to me, I just prefer the current generation of games giving you the same information via within-fiction feedback instead of via statistical HUD displays.

Now, on to my initial experience with the game.

I loved the attract movie -- it reminds me of the beginning of The Chronicles of Riddick where a guy is running across a frozen plain, pursued by a chopper (well, spacecraft in Riddick).

However, the Game shell UI made me nervous.

  • Options aren't arranged in a traditional menu format. There are floating selectable thingies. And I can't tell which one is highlighted.
  • The font is almost impossible to read (some sort of ghetto stylized text). Maybe it's just my projector. But wow. I can barely read the text.
  • Only one of the "Cars" (I mean characters) is available in the demo. I have a feeling I'd want to test out a couple of different characters to make sure that the variety was fun.
Then the game tells me I'm going to be thrown into a tutorial:
  • The voice talks to me. There are all sorts of rules that sound important. But I just want to play.
  • And then I realize: It's not a tutorial. It's a lecture. Boring.
  • Moreover the pacing is all off. I'm being told about the RB and bleeding and... Never mind. The game is starting now.
  • It was at this point that I said "ah... of course, it's by Bizarre Creations." They've basically taken the Kudos system from PGR and applied it to a shooter.
Game play:
  • The camera and VO are introducing me to the race track. Interesting.
  • They offer me "casual" game play mode (in addition to Reckless, Insane, and a locked "Real"). There isn't any help text, but I can see that difficulty mode affects the amount of points I need to get before I can pass the level.
  • Just before the level begins, up flashes an insanely complex image of controller with all kinds of buttons and functions. Skip it.
  • I realize it's a 3rd person shooter. And I need to invert my camera. My guy feels a little rigid. Maybe I'd some of the others will feel more athletic?
  • I'm trying to figure out basic controls. Why is B mapped to grenades?
  • It really does feel a bit like Doom. There are oversized novelty health and ammo pickups. The enemy AI is pretty uninteresting. They have behaviors that you can learn and will probably require strategizing against at higher difficulty levels, but on "Casual" the enemies just seem lame and uninvolved.
  • This game is obviously designed to appeal to the racing folks who like to master tracks. I imagine there will be "ghost" images that you can save and send to friends and compete that way (the kind of asynchronous competition that made PGR2 so addictive for a lot of my friends).
  • I completed the default mode and then tried the "Timed mode". I guess I will be running laps around a course. If I fail, microexplosives will detonate in my skull.... Hmm... Not exactly the kind of compelling story I was hoping for.
  • The weapons don't feel that sweet. The shotgun feels kind of lame. I can't tell much difference between the various machine guns (other than slight audio tweaks). The pistol is pretty satisfying, though.
  • I complete the race and wonder whether it would be fun to be chasing a friend's ghost.
Overall, this one is a rental for me. I am curious as to whether there are ghosts in this game. I think it would be super cool to be able to watch friends complete single player experiences. I am left to dream how cool Portal 2 might be if I could compete against my friends' ghosts.

That would be cool.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Leeeeeeroy Jenkins (and some Rock Band)

Short post tonight. Sadly, with all the packing and side projects I'm engaging in these days, my game time has been limited.

However, today I did get to engage in some Rock Band and some World of Warcraft CCG gaming.

Rock Band was fun. It was the first time I'd played it completely sober with strangers. And these strangers were quite good. I'm still shocked at how bad the game shell UI is (especially if you just want to quickly dive into a song and start playing) and at how poorly the Easy and Medium difficulty levels are calibrated. Yet I still had a blast. The social aspect of the game gave me the strength to struggle through the multiple failures until I was able to at least keep up and not ruin the game for my band mates.

The World of Warcraft CCG session was fun and refreshing at the same time. We did the raid on Onyxia -- a barbarians at the gate scenario where 4 of us played cooperatively against the DM. One of us had never played WoW before, I had played for a few weeks (capped at about level 27) and the other 3 players (2 team mates & the DM) were all hard core WoW players (we were at a party celebrating the one year anniversary of their guild -- and they even had a tabard-decorated cake).

We all ended up having fun. We didn't get into any really cool combos or complex social interactions, but it was clear that the game would require strategic cooperation to win the quest. Unfortunately we needed to call the game off before it finished (I had to rush off to a hockey game) but it was clear that we were about to be decimated.

Funnily enough, one of my companions had the Leroy Jenkins card and got a chance to play it during the game. It did exactly what you'd expect it to do: Screw down all your allies while buffing you for a heroic attack. Well done, Blizzard.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

More Darkness

Well, I've played another couple of hours of Darkness. And it's been up and down.

I really like the way they do cinematics: They are basically used to cover loading screens. As soon as the level is load you can skip the rest (press B) or you can watch the whole cut scene. It makes the best of a necessary evil. It helps that the cinematics area actually kind of amusing and entertaining. They definitely help set the mood and add some color to the main character (though the lack of lip sync tech is really noticeable in the dialog sequences).

On the down side, I'm having some issues with controls and -- indirectly -- save points. The crawling arm thing is really hard to control, especially when you need to creep into little gaps in order to unlock some gate/door. Between the level design and scripted AI reactions (my little critter points out gaps when he comes across them) I can tell where I need to go. The problem is that the crawling arm is really hard to aim with precision. It took me a couple of minutes to simply shoot through a vent on the floor. After I completed the task I was ambushed and killed because the enemies crept up on me while I struggled in vain to make the crawling arm attack them.

It was at that point I realized that the check point system could use some optimization: I was forced to replay about 15 minutes of game play instead of a more logical (based on my progression through the level) 2-3 minutes. At this point I turned off the game.

I also just discovered the Back button menu. It has access to all sorts of important information and I think I've figured out more about how my powers work. Sadly, I still don't have the kind of control over my weapons and abilities that I think I should. I've already mentioned the issue with weapon loading and switching. Other issues include:

  • Not knowing when my critter has died/got stuck behind me. Also, not having good ways to target and position him with confidence.
  • Not really following what my objectives are. I basically just shoot everyone until I can't find any more people. At some point my objectives get updated and I clear out and then wander around until I find some more people to kill. One prime example of this: I picked up dynamite, gasoline, and started a power saw. Yet I can't figure out why I needed to do any of that -- nor can I see the dynamite/gasoline in my inventory. What am I supposed to do with them?
I'll try it again for another hour or so, but I'm worried that the game play just won't be interesting enough to keep me going.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Darkness: Initial Experience

Finally back into console game world. I fired up The Darkness and am about an hour or so into the game. I really enjoyed the demo and it was recommended highly by a friend whose opinion I trust -- though I can't remember whether he recommended the game or some specific element.

So far it's pretty decent. I'm a little nervous that I'm going to get really tired of the "shoot out every single light bulb in the city" game so that I can use my cool powers. But, I'm willing to give it another hour or two to see whether the combat patterns are deeper than "pistol -> light bulb; pistol -> light bulb; sick snake-arm-thing on guy around the corner".

Here are some thoughts on the initial experience.

The opening game shell flow was a little jarring and dated:

  • As soon as I pressed start, I was presented with a visual quality adjustment screen. Basically there were two sliders: Quality and Gamma. Quality cycled through various looks that ranged both in terms of aesthetic look and darkness. I assumed that I should just pick something I liked. Gamma (which means nothing to anyone other than a hardcore PC gamer) really just means "brightness". Unfortunately there was no way for me to assess whether I should change this or not. Thankfully the game told me I could readjust this at any time during game play. And, a really cool feature (for the advanced player who wants to adjust brightness) is that it applies the adjustments to the current paused game view so you can actually set the level most appropriate to your needs.
  • Next I was allowed to select difficulty: Easy, Medium, or Hard. Medium was the default selection. No attempt to attract the "Casual" gamer here -- the difficulty levels are definitely old school.
Opening game play:
  • The screen went black, and then a blurry image appeared. An on screen prompt had a picture of a thumb stick (not sure which one) and presented text telling me to look around. I figured out that it was the right stick and jammed it left and right. My camera view seemed to slowly change a bit. Then I noticed that it looked like I was staring at my legs. I guessed that it wanted me to look up (to trap my y-axis preferences). I pulled back on the stick and as soon as my head was level the game saved and I went into a partially interactive cut scene.
  • The opening sequence was a credits movie where I could interact a bit. Generally speaking, I could turn my head. Eventually I got a shotgun and could fire (futilely) at targets as they sped by (I was in a car). After the car crashed the main learn-as-you-play component started.
  • As I woke up I was prompted to "Press Back button to view tutorial help". I couldn't do anything else (no skipping) and when I pressed the back button I got a big billboard of text. I immediately skipped it, hoping it wasn't very important.
  • There were various standard situational prompts (Y to jump up; click thumbstick to crouch; triggers to fire weapons).
Core game play:
  • The core game play is reasonably fun so far. The pistol shooting bits weren't the greatest, but it started to get more fun when I obtained my darkness powers.
  • The ammo & reloading mechanics are rather confusing.
    • I can't see ammo on the ground near corpses. It seems like sometimes I pick some up, sometimes not.
    • I initially had no idea how the reload model works. I was left to shoot until I was empty and auto reload. I eventually learned that B reloaded both of my hand guns at the same time (you start the game with guns akimbo). It would have been much clearer if I got *some* feedback when I hit B when my guns were fully loaded that let me know that B did something. The problem was that I'd hit B when the guns were fully loaded and nothing would happen, so I gave up on the B button.
    • I'm also not sure I fully understand the ammo UI. It seems to switch weapon graphics sometimes -- almost like I'm switching between kinds of gun. It's a total mystery to me.
  • I also didn't learn how to holster my weapons before shooting an NPC out of frustration. The NPC wouldn't talk to me while my guns were raised, but I had no idea how to put them away. So I shot him. Later I learned that you could do this by pressing the d-pad.
  • The level design can be a little confusing. I'm guessing that the designers wanted the city to feel like an open world where you could have all kinds of open quests to be solved in the order that you see fit. However, at the beginning of the game when I'm still learning things, I'm expecting to be on rails for a bit. Why, then, was I started in a train station and told to go to the platform for a phone call -- but NOT supposed to get on the train? If you lead a person to a train station, you should probably assume that he thinks "I should take the train". Wrong. I took the train the wrong way, then finally figured out I needed to exit the train station without boarding the train. Weird.
  • The phone dial minigame is kind of fun. Collectables give me phone numbers to call. They provide some world flavoring and bonus content. Sadly, the free dial function didn't seem to work right. I typed in one number from a poster and it worked fine. I kept trying to type in a different number and it autodialed after 4 digits and never let me dial the number I wanted to.
  • I basically finished the first stage (meeting up with my girlfriend) after a bunch of wandering. I could hear her shouting "Jackie, I'm up here" but there were no visual cues directing me to where "up here" was. Eventually I saw a couple of pixels moving on the corner of my screen and finally moved close enough to see her waving out of a 5th floor window. There were no visual cues/level design hints to help me find her.
  • The save game system seems to work well (you don't seem to lose a lot of progress when you die; it seems to point you in the right direction when you resurrect). Dying is also built into the fiction of the game in the form of movies that play as the level reloads. You have to watch the first 10-15 seconds, but can skip the rest if you want to and jump back into game play.
I left the game at a battle sequence that it looked like it might take a few tries to complete. I think I'm about an hour or so away from figuring out whether I'll like it a lot or whether it will just be kind of so-so.

Monday, March 10, 2008

No time for BIG GAMES… But a little time for little games

This past weekend has been spent mostly not playing console games or keeping up with my Scrabulous and Scramble opponents.

But, I have been doing at least some gaming. The only Facebook "game" I seem to be able to play by cell phone is poke. I've been engaging in a weekend long poke war battle with a good friend of mine from the east coast. Basically every hour or so I receive a "poke" from my friend (experienced as a buzz on my cell phone that lets me know that a new SMS has arrived) that I then respond to by opening the text message and responding with the letter "p" to poke him back. It's mostly like a staring contest in that there is no real strategy. Mainly one person needs to either live with the annoying "you have been poked" status message at the top of his or her Facebook profile, concede, or poke back. Childish? Yep. But it still can be incredible fun if you use your imagination. In the current match, I know that my friend is going through a period of intense crunch time and is working pretty much 7 days per week. I know that while he's in the zone he only has short periods of down time to do a few "fun" tasks. And I think it's cool that one of those things he thinks to do is poke me from across the country.

The other game I played this weekend was Apples to Apples. It's a light-weight party game that is great on many levels. First, and foremost, it is easy to learn by jumping in and playing. Secondly, it is entertaining. Finally, the core mechanics of game play are fun enough that people can jump in or leave at any point and still have the same amount of fun (and doesn't upset the flow or balance of the game for the people who are taking it more "seriously"). The game is played with two sets of cards: Green cards (adjectives like "grotesque") and red cards (nouns like "Nuclear Weapons", "Macaroni and Cheese", and "Bruce Willis"). Each turn a judge turns over a new green card. All other players select from their hand of seven red cards the noun that they think (based on their subjective knowledge of the judge) will best exemplify the adjective. The judge then (ideally with elaborate and entertaining commentary) decides which noun wins, and the person who submitted that noun collects the green card and scores a point. The player to the left of the judge becomes the next judge, players draw to seven red cards, and the game progresses until a player reaches an agreed upon point total.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The LinkedIn game

Most of my gaming over the past week has been of the Scramble and Scrabulous variety. While I'm dominating in the former, I've found some serious competition in the latter.

I also explored some of the new features on LinkedIn. Specifically, they added a mini-feed that is very similar to the mini-feed on Facebook. I reckoned that I'd used the Facebook mini-feed to troll for Scramble and Scrabulous partners, so why not do the same thing to connect with friends that I'm LinkedIn with.

Obviously this is a professional social network, so I didn't want to embarrass myself or my colleagues who might not want to be called out in that kind of forum.

So, I posted to my feed: "Jason is waiting to hear back from Brian" (I forget the actual wording, but it was fairly innocuous and reasonably ambiguous -- I know several Brians). Of course, I did this knowing that the Brian in question was a huge LinkedIn player (lots of connections, posts on the forums, etc) and figured that even though the mini-feed was a new feature that he'd probably notice and respond.

Monday morning at 9AM I received an email from Brian. He thought it was hilarious and wanted to figure out how to set his own status.

Ah, social network gaming.