Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More Super Mario Galaxy

I left SMG yesterday night (well, really early this AM) wondering whether I'd want to keep progressing through the game or file it away as a great exercise in fun Wii-mote based game play that had no deeper draw to it.

After playing another couple of hours, I must admit that I'm hooked. It's got just the right mixture of relaxing navigation and puzzle solving to learn the basic mechanics that is then combined with more interesting challenges that really make you feel smart for completing them.

And, it is all available in bite-sized chunks. Yes, I wouldn't want to play an hour and then let a week go by before picking up the controller again for fear of forgetting some crucial mechanic that would then block my progress. But it's still very accessible (at least to me) and at least the first few galaxies are designed to let you remember and practice the core components that you'll need to creatively assemble later on in the game.

At its heart, SMG, is really no more than a fun training sim. There is clearly a well designed syllabus that covers in-class lectures, hands-on lab experience, home work, and a grading system. There are extra credits and opportunities for make up tests to boost grades if you're struggling or failing. Failure is punished, but not too harshly.

But, best of all, the core work is fun to do over and over again. How do we make math textbooks and grammar rule books as fun and rewarding to explore as the world of Mario?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy...

So far, Super Mario Galaxy has been a fun ride. It's still amazing how a game can take just a few elements, polish them to a sheen, and make even a basic tutorial fun and rewarding to play. It also marks the first fun Wii game that I've played in quite a while.

I still get a little disoriented when I try to navigate upside down, but after about an hour or so of playing, I seem capable of doing basic jumps, exploration, and combat no matter which way is up.

The sandbox element of the first hour or so is content is so rewarding. I figured out most of the techniques on my own through normal play before I was ever told about them (and required to use them) by different gatekeepers in the game.

Although I imagine that some folks would rather play the game with a regular controller, I am actually enjoying the wii-mote aspects of the game. The pointer can be used to grab gems (nice -- and I also hear that it's really fun for parents with young kids who can grab gems using the wii-mote while the parent moves Mario around) and shaking the wand is integrated well into both combat and exploration. It adds a nice rhythm element (kind of like playing the notes in Windwaker or navigating through a Quicktime Event in God of War. It certainly doesn't feel tacked on like the 6 axis implementation in games like Ratchet & Clank: Future Tools of Destruction.

I think what I like most about this version of SM is that it is much more Zelda like, and it also seems to incorporate cool aspects of other games like Katamari Damacy and Ratchet & Clank. It seems like I've only discovered a small portion of the game world so far and I'm pretty interesting how the game gets bigger and better as I progress.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy arrived...

After a beautiful long weekend in Tahoe I was dumped back into the world of games.

Sadly my work schedule over the last two days meant actually working on games I can't talk about on my blog, though.

That said, Super Mario Galaxy arrived (from my Gamefly account). I'm looking forward to playing a Wii title as it's been a while. Hopefully over the next few days I should have some posts about SMG and some other games I have kicking around (God of War 2, Call of Duty 4, and maybe some more Xbox demos).

I also hope to get some board gaming in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Universe at War: Demo

I tried the Universe at War demo tonight. I didn't spend too much time on it and left with somewhat mixed feelings.

The top menu item on the main menu was "Tutorial" so I jumped in on it. They had some decent ideas about how to map a PC RTS to a console controller (certainly no worse than other console RTS games out there right now) but the tutorial was pretty structured and boring. After completing it, I tried "Conquer the World" that at first made me think they just lifted the CTW feature from Rise of Nations. However, it turned out to be a multiplayer matchmaking interface that took place on a large conquer the world style map. I'm not sure if there was a meta game (I quickly exited when I tried to select a province and start a game as I didn't want to play against a stranger) but there's certainly some potential.

I then jumped into a skirmish battle on default AI. I'm thinking that the first battle should have probably been against a slightly weaker AI, though, as I was threatened the whole time.

While the UI seemed reasonable, it was extremely hard to find and select units (especially when there were a bunch of them). In the chaos of building up my base and trying to defend against attacks, I quickly lost my builders so I couldn't task them to fixing/building new things.

I may try it again if I work on another RTS, but for now I think I'll wait until someone revolutionizes in the space... None of the current generation of console RTS games really catches my fancy.

Finished The Darkness (and played some God of War 2)

I just completed The Darkness. It was created by the folks behind Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. I quite enjoyed the ride, even if it wasn't as polished an adventure as Uncharted and the combat never lived up to its potential (weapons + demon powers + minions) in terms of challenge or tactical/strategic feel.

What did I like most? I really liked the way I got to get to know my character better through his dreams and visions. These played at various plot points of the game -- and key ones repeated during reloads. Not only did this make load times much more interesting, but it really captured the feel of the moody/tormented main character.

The game was definitely adult themed and quite graphic and gory at times -- much like a good action/thriller movie. The sequence involving the death of my girlfriend was one of the more powerful sequences in a game. They captured the frustration, helplessness, and anger that I was supposed to feel just right.

As far as God of War 2 goes, I'm playing it more for research purposes right now. I've got a couple of games that I'm working on that are going for action combat. While I really enjoy the combination of action combat and quick time events, I think that it's a little unforgiving on default difficulty. I wonder if I would have been able to complete the first hour of game play without having played a bunch of the first version. That said, the first hour was a wild and fun ride. I look forward to playing more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bourne Conspiracy: Demo

Since I've returned to working on games I haven't had as much time to write about (and play) games recreationally. This will hopefully change soon as things die down -- though having work is a good thing.

I burned through The Bourne Conspiracy and was left wanting more, in a good way. I'm definitely going to bump it up my Gamefly Q. It had the frantic/frenetic feel of the Bourne movies (and books, of which I'm also a fan). What I'm not sure about is whether the story and cinematic feel will be enough to make up for the somewhat repetitive combat. Yes, finishing "take down" moves do spice things up, but it's really just a button mashing brawler at its core so far.

It's clearly in the same vein as Tomb Raider (but without platforming elements) and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (but with more Quick Time events), but it handles hand-to-hand combat in a much more accessible manner. That is to say that I could actually use my fists effectively in Bourne (I never could in the other titles).

The IP alone is enough to interest me and make me look past the mediocre combat and forgive the somewhat unforgiving Quick Time events. The question is whether the production value, pacing, and challenge curve will keep me going.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Army of Two: Demo Thoughts

First, and foremost, if you haven't checked out Yahtzee's review of Army of Two, you should.

I'm not sure how fun the demo would have been just as a single player experience... But as a co-op demo, it went pretty darn swimmingly. Luckily it seems to be popular enough that broadcasting for "first available" partner took only a few seconds.

Me and my partner (I don't tend to use the headset, so I'm not sure who he was) were dropped into a tutorial. We quickly plowed through it -- and you know what, even though it was a standard boring tutorial (aim, move, basic squad tactics) it was so much more fun to be able to play it co-op even without voice.

We quickly got into the main demo mission (probably the first mission of the game) and while it was less polished and didn't feel as good as Gears of War, it was definitely fun enough to keep me going for a 15-20 minute ride with a complete stranger.

I'll add it to the rental list and try the single player, but I'm not sure it will be quite as good. It's nice not to have to micromanage your squad mate -- which I didn't have to do in the co-op demo because even without voice chat we developed a reasonably useful system of communication.

I was initially sad that there wasn't a single player component to the demo -- and I likely would not have tried it had I not been doing some research for a friend as it's pretty intimidating to jump in with a stranger. That said, I give EA credit for sticking to their guns and forcing people to experience the online co-op.

Of course, I could have ended up with a total jackass who screwed around and dropped out after 5 minutes (leaving me stuck to do the tutorial again with someone else). But... there ya go.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Portal: The quest for community created content

I decided that I wanted to try to play some community created content for Portal. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the game doesn't make it too obvious that this is possible.

Armed with the knowledge that community created content does exist (I've read about it on the web) I set about trying to grab some and play them.

I started with the Portal main menu. "Bonus Maps" seemed to be the only logical place to check. When I opened this submenu there was, in fact, a little option button at the bottom left that allows the user to "Import Bonus Maps".

Clicking that button takes the user to a skinned version of the Windows Explorer. I was dumped into the ..\portal subdirectory and could deduce from the "file type: Bonus Map Zip Files (*.bmz)" that I needed to find .bmz files... somewhere.

I clicked on various subdirectories. No good. There didn't seem to be any files ready for me to try out.

So, I then fired up the Steam client to see what happened.

I tried the "Store" menu. No luck. Then the "Community" menu. Nothing.

I then looked at the "My Games" menu and tried right-clicking on Portal. Nothing immediately suggested "community content" so I tried "View Forum". It opened up a web page in my browser that had a bunch of discussion posts about Portal. I scanned some posts and found one that talked about how someone had ported the free flash game levels into actual Portal levels. This sounded cool, so I clicked on the link and was taken to another website where I downloaded a .rar file.

I then explored the .rar file (using winrar -- a separate application I needed to download) and read the readme.txt file. I was told to "simply" copy the files and folders to my ..\portal directory and overwrite existing files if prompted. Scary stuff, right?

Well, I got this far... so...

I hit the scary "yes" to delete files option, hoping it wouldn't bone down my original Portal game and proceeded to copy the files.

I opened the "Bonus Maps" sub menu again and this time noticed an option for Portal: The Flash Version. That part was pretty sweet.

Double click on the option and... bam. I'm in game.

For a PC-savvy gamer (who has experience downloading and installing mods) this wasn't all that difficult a task. It was a bit tedious and had lots of potential for human error. Moreover, I haven't even had a chance to evaluate the content yet -- nor do I have any sense of how good the content is (other than a couple of comments in the forum).

My background in social & community features at Amazon.com makes me want to call out a few features that might be helpful to more casual users:

  • Allow for some inside-out selection of community content (e.g., let me discover content via the Portal "Bonus Map" sub menu). If it's not possible to make a good inside-out experience, then optimize the Steam client to surface community content with ratings and reviews (as opposed to having me search forums, go to other websites, and go through a manual install process).
  • Incorporate ratings & reviews into game play sessions. There's no reason why you can't collect scads and scads of customer data in very frictionless ways. Install a mod? After you exit the mod have an intervening screen that asks for a rating (1 to 5 stars) and a few comments.
  • Involve the community in screening and preparing content into easily consumable pieces for less savvy gamers. There's no reason that a less-savvy gamer shouldn't be able to read ratings and reviews and then click on an "install" button that downloads, installs, and runs the content all in one click. No more diving through directories and scary "overwrite files" prompts.
Thoughts on the game to follow.
A couple of additional notes:
  • The forum thread on this map pack has a few comments re: difficulty of installing it.
  • I got about 10 minutes in and then was stuck and couldn't progress further. Seems like there are tons of cool potential ways to integrate community data into a solution. Imagine:
    • Tagging a certain part of a puzzle as tough. This would publish level data (and maybe a screenie or Youtube video) to the community. Experts could run either type a helpful hint or post their own video demonstrating how to complete that section. If there are any potentially relevant hints that have already been posted, they are surfaced to me as well.
    • Real time community help. Surface reliable community moderators who monitor a Steam support chat room. I hit the "I'm stuck" tag and they help me figure it out via chat or link to a video.
    • Real time in-game community help. Imagine that I could invite someone else to jump into the level to me and give me an in-game demonstration. Kind of like what happens with MMOs like World of Warcraft where wily veterans help newbs complete quests.
Unfortunately I'm left to either dig through forum posts or simply remove the mod (well, I'm not really sure how to do this...) and try another one.