Friday, January 29, 2010

New Year: New Update. Shadow Complex, Wagons East, Dog-eared Magazine Pages, To Do List

No excuses, just no posts in the past month. I'll just jump right in and get going.

Games on my "need to play" list right now:

  • Mass Effect 2
  • Assassin's Creed 2
  • Borderlands
Of course, while I was lamenting the fact that I'll have little time for serious gaming over the next few weeks (details below) I decided to procrastinate by picking up Shadow Complex on XBLA. It turned out to be a great choice for a variety of reasons:
  • The demo was great, if a little short. It quickly got me engaged in the game and sucked me into the story. 
  • I found the controls to be pretty intuitive and really only had problems when I had multiple special items (grenades, foam, rockets, hook) to choose from. Thankfully the game seemed calibrated for this fact (suboptimal equipment switch) and really only required quick switching during one boss encounter.
  • I loved how the game approached "learn to play" tutorials. First, for the "must play all tutorials player" you could optionally choose to do some reasonably engaging tutorials. Each tutorial unit was short and units built on top of one another. You could quit at any point and start the campaign. Second, each time you got introduced to a new piece of equipment you were given the *option* of hitting the back button to read more about the equipment specs. The option text persisted on-screen (noticeable, but unobtrusive) so you could play around with the equipment first and even skip the "read the billboard" part if you wanted to. Third, tutorials were followed by challenges (completing tutorials unlocked the challenges). Challenges ramped up in difficulty and were tied into achievements in a sensible way. Finally, each time you started the game (after leaving) you were given the option to go to the "proving grounds" (tutorial) as a secondary option to continuing your campaign. The game recognized that some (many?) people tend to play in bite-sized chunks and this is a great way to offer a non-compulsory reminder to players who may have been away from the game for a while.
  • I also loved how the game incentivized hard core players by allowing them to stack the deck against themselves (go for a speed run; try to finish the game without completely powering up your character) but remained reasonably accessible to less hardcore players by letting you power up your character through additional exploration. I wasn't as interested in trying to play "tactical combat" against enemies and was glad that I got to level up my weapons to the extent that I could blow them all away with one shot. Moreover, the one shot deaths were supremely entertaining in terms of visceral feel and comedic value.
  • There was a nice incorporation of "social" beyond simple leaderboards. Kind of like Trials HD, this game showed you how you compared against your friends on various achievement-based stats. Bubble up stats would display when you increased a few key stat counters that would show how your stats compared against your friends'. Pretty cool.
  • The level of polish was quite high in terms of game play and cinematics. I actually quite enjoyed the short cut-scenes (they looked great and I'm a sucker for Nolan North after the Uncharted games). But what really caught my attention was how good it felt to engage in melee combat and how fun the final rifle upgrade felt. The team clearly worked hard on combining sound, rumble, and visuals to make combat viscerally satisfying. Melee takedowns were fun to execute and over-the-top. Ranged kills were entertaining in various ways (people screaming and falling off of things). And, as your powers increased, the physics were hammed up to comic (but immensely satisfying) levels. My wife and I shared many laughs as I mowed through my helpless enemies.
  • The game embraced humor through both story and game play. The writing and voice acting was entertaining (especially some of the main character's grunts and shouts -- it actually reduced the pain and frustration of getting foamed to hear him say "what the Fuh?"; and the NPC chatter was also quite good). More importantly, moment-to-moment game play supported the game's humor (e.g., the over-the-top violence and humorous death squeals and animations; the "whoah I'm out of control" exit from speed-dash).
Were there issues? Of course. But they ended up being fairly minor for the most part.
  • Aiming at Z axis enemies. I never quite got this right, but the game was balanced such that I didn't really have to care. I got so powerful that even if I was only half as accurate when I aimed at Z axis enemies, I survived just fine and didn't feel all that frustrated. The designers recognized that this game was a platformer and not a shooter at heart, so instead of over-solving the aiming issue they decided to de-emphasize accuracy as an important component to success in combat situations.
  • They encourage me to be completionist without giving me a chance to do so without going to GameFaqs.com. This complaint is similar to the issue I raised with Batman: Arkham Asylum. I loved how the game had maps that showed me explored vs. unexplored areas and included "?" icons for areas that contained secrets. However, some of the secrets have been impossible to find -- and I'm not blocked by game play (I've obtained all gear) but by a poorly executed section of the map that I've scoured for long periods of time without having any idea where the secret item can be found. It's frustrating because it makes the game feel broken -- especially when the "completionist" achievement only rewards 100% completion without smaller rewards along the way for folks who want to get "most" but can't quite get all of them.
OK. Quick change of gears. After several months of thinking about it, my wife and I are packing up and moving east. To Baltimore. I've lived there before and it's MUCH closer to our families that Seattle. My hope is to start carving out a niche for myself on the east coast and midwest and reduce the amount of coast-to-coast travel that I do. We're super excited -- and I'll try not to use the whole "we're busy packing, moving, trying to buy a house, etc" wag of excuses for not keeping current with my blog.

And another thing... As part of the cleaning up and packing I managed to discover several Game Developer and Casual Connect magazines that I had dog-eared pages on. I have no good solution for archiving information that I find interesting at time A in a way that I can browse, search, or otherwise discover at Time B. This goes for both digital and non-digital content. The digital part is more embarrassing (I stopped trying to solve this thing by being thwarted by every bookmarking applet/browser function I've ever tried) than the analog part, but I still do consume analog information and would like to keep a record of findings somehow or other.

My less than ideal solution (for now): Adding some comments about what I read in a blog post. It sucks that I can't link to the original (Game Developer does have an online version, but it's a paid subscription; Casual Connect does not have an online version) but I guess folks can dig these articles up if they want to read the source material.

That's all for now (comments re: dog-eared articles will follow in a later post).

Oh: I also cast my AIAS ballot for the various "GOTY" categories and need to schedule some play time with the finalists for the IGF competition (I'm one of the many judges).

It feels good to write again.

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