Thursday, June 19, 2008

Some new tech & new games...

Today I received a few games and gadgets in the mail.

  • The HAVA Platinum HD PVR. This little gadget allows me to record game play footage (and screen shots) from my consoles. It's a cheapy version that really only supports 480p (and barely that) but when I scale down the Xbox 360 and PS3 it does a reasonably good job of displaying content and UI elements. The Wii works great with it as it is natively 480p anyhow. I'm going to use this to capture screen shots for some articles I am writing.
  • Jericho and Eternal Sonata arrived via Gamefly. I'm not hugely excited about either game -- but the former is good research for some projects I'm working on and the latter might turn out to be a fun jRPG (I really liked Enchanted Arms and Blue Dragon even though their achievements were lame).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tenchu Z: A ninja game that is NOT Ninja Gaiden

I'm obviously doing research on ninja-related game play. Tenchu Z is a completely different beast than Ninja Gaiden. It's about stealth (similar to Thief, Splinter Cell, and other stealth based games) where you try to avoid conflict as much as possible.

Accordingly your character has very weak combat abilities to start the game with -- and if you alert more than 2 guards you'll quickly die. Not very fun as an initial experience, but it sets the tone that this is more about sneaking around and less about combat right off the bat.

The stealth part is a little bit exciting once you give up on having fun in combat. Once you realize that this is a game about not being seen until you assassinate the final target then sneaking around the levels makes for some tense gaming moments.

Unfortunately you only start the game with two basic options: Sneak around hoping no one sees you; and if the enemies are alerted, run away until they stop looking for you. Yes there are some gadgets that you can buy later on to help set diversions and slow down pursuers. But the equipment system is already hard to use and the enemy AI is so bad you hardly feel like it's worth investing in equipment when you can literally just turn the corner and duck to get away.

The movement, jump, attack, defend, and grappling hook controls are mediocre at best. I never really felt like a ninja in any aspect of the game. Not only are the animations sub par, but the visuals are generally lacking, the levels are boring, and ranged items (like the grappling hook) aren't that fun to aim.

The game shell UI is a mess (all sorts of weird confirmation dialogs; the save game path is confusing) and the on screen UI takes a little while to figure out as well.

As far as initial experience goes, the game forces the first time player to run through a little tutorial. The tutorial is not really a "learn as you play" but more of a read the billboards as they cover the screen and block your vision. The billboards are only slightly context sensitive and they're hard to activate (and reactivate) reliably so you can read them again if you need them.

All in all it felt very much like a smaller version of Assassin's Creed in that I felt like I was playing the interface (watching the stealth meter/alertness bar) while holding the "make me walk slow button" for the entire level. Occasionally I'd gut someone from behind with my sword, but otherwise I'd just try and sneak around and avoid combat altogether. Moreover, there was no real investigation part of the game -- yes you explored the map, but there were no people to interact with or clues to gather. Just wander around until you find what you're looking for (or move to the indicator spots on the map for some missions).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ninja Gaiden 2 Thoughts

I'm doing a bit of research on Ninja games for some projects that I am working on. Obviously Ninja Gaiden 2 is a must play game.

I started out on Acolyte (easiest, default difficulty) and was thrown into the fray. I was attacked less than 1 second after the opening cinematic finished and I was on the defensive for the first few minutes of game play.

Some thoughts on the initial experience:

  • The AI was quite aggressive. Failure to block would lead to early death.
  • The on screen help text blocked too much of the screen -- yes, it was noticeable, but it also blocked me from seeing what the enemies were doing.
  • The level design meant that as I got knocked back I ended up in a part of the level where my view was obstructed by a railing, making it even harder to see what my enemies were up to.
  • The compact opening arena meant that I was constantly being attacked from off-screen and needed to manipulate the camera frequently.
  • There were too many enemies on screen at first. I needed to be able to practice the basic moves in safety before getting swarmed.
  • Fights in dark areas and narrow corridors made it hard for me to see my character when he was surrounded by enemies. This was compounded by the fact that my character did not stand out visually from the first round of enemy ninjas.
Some other observations I had:
  • Interactive objects (chests, destructable objects, doors I need to open) were not well lit and obvious.
  • Although there are lots of cool moves to unlock, the differences amongst many of them are too subtle to notice -- some ways that the distinctions could be punched up:
    • Have more noticeable in game differences (shouts, animations, audio/visual feedback) when you use the correct counter/method vs. when you use incorrect or suboptimal tactics.
    • UI call outs when you execute combos and special moves (e.g., first time you try a move; 5th time; times when the special move did maximal damage; times when the special move is ineffective). This feedback could be rolled into the combos/scoring mechanic.
All criticisms aside, the game is pretty fun to play now that I'm diving more deeply into combat systems. As an intellectual exercise it's fun to try and break down what's going on in terms of AI behavior, level design, and character controls and animation.

Check Mii out channel.

I wanted to download some Wii Ware today, but I didn't realize Nintendo wasn't using a demo/try before you buy strategy, so I want to do more research before I actually purchase something.

However, I did download the Check Mii Out Channel, which is a free social utility where people can exchange their Mii creations to other Wii owners. It's pretty cool in that it allows you to have as little or as much involvement as you want (you can browse Mii's or see the results of contests; you can "rate" other people's Mii's to give them kudos; you can grab Mii's you like and copy them to your own Wii, you can participate in contests by creating Mii's and uploading them).

The contests themselves are cool. There's a subject line (e.g., "Mii's that look like Juliet") and then you can view contestants and vote on your favorites. Results are tallied and the winners receive kudos points (their Mii Artisans gain recognition) and their creations dance around in parades. It's light hearted fun and certainly makes the whole Mii creation process much more social in nature. It's cool to have some strange Japanese kid's creation hanging out with the Mii's that I created with my own friends.

Some of the filter/search/sort options are lacking right now (making it hard to skim through lots of Mii's efficiently), but there's enough meat in there to make me want to check it out more often. Hopefully it also makes good use of notifications so that I know when contests I'm interested in ended and I can make sure I check back.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Steam-ing experience...

So, I fired up the demo to Penny Arcade Adventures. It felt very polished from a UI perspective (although the "options" menu was pretty PC circa 1994). The character creation was cool from a feel perspective (it's fun to watch your avatar as he/she changes appearance and inspects accessories) but limited from an options perspective.

The game intro was entertaining and the style of story telling (mix of comic frames with still and moving pictures) was really cool and true to the Penny Arcade IP.

As a point and click adventure game it started off reasonably interesting and fun. I got a sense of the tone of the game (humor), got to do some combat and add some equipment and a party member. The the game seized up. I tried to comply with the order to use an orange on some robots and then the game just stopped responding to my mouse inputs (I could only "escape" out and quit).

My only option was to redo everything again:

  • Character creation
  • Rewatch the opening sequences (they're non-skippable).
It reminded me very much of my original experience with Black and White. I played for a bit, decided I wanted to start over, but then couldn't bear to replay the tedious opening tutorial again (it was something like a half an hour long).

The ultimate deal breaker was the fact that the cool and polished game shell UI made me watch a movie when I just wanted to select "start game". It felt like those DVD main menus that require you to watch clips of the movie before you are shown a play button. Argh!

I'll have to read a bit more about the game to decide whether it's worth retrying it, worth waiting for a patch (if my issue was caused by a known bug), or whether it just gets uninstalled.

It's amazing how a painful initial experience will just cause me to move on. Note that the issue was not the bug that made the game unresponsive -- it was the fact that there was no checkpointing of my progress so that when I restarted the game I could skip the whole intro and dive right back in.

Steamy experience...

This is the way that demos were meant to be experienced:

  • Email update (from an email list that I actually signed up for) that tells that the Penny Arcade Aventures game is available on Steam for download.
  • I open my Steam client and quickly find the game's landing page.
  • I click to download demo.
  • Tada... A few minutes later the demo is ready to be played.
Thoughts on the demo to follow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Additions to the library

With my subscription to Gamefly, I've managed to dramatically reduce the number of new games I purchase. That said, there are some games that I feel are worth keeping for future reference. The used prices are reasonable and they ship the manuals and cases to me, which is nice.

Today I acquired:

  • God of War 2
  • Super Mario Galaxy
I know I'm going to need to refer to them again, but can't see playing them any more. I'd rather get the next 2 games in my queue...

Kung Fu Panda Demo

It was pretty fun. The pacing was great and it was a pretty darn tight experience. The combat was fun and ramped up in complexity in a very user-friendly way, I love Jack Black's voice acting, and the world was fun enough to explore.

It did present a number of tutorial billboards along the way, but they didn't seem as annoying in this game as they do in others. Part of this is due to length (they were brief), production value (they were entertainingly voice acted), pacing (there was game play in between each one), contextual relevance (you were taught something just before you had to use it), and good mixture of mandatory and optional billboards (so you could skip non-essential ones if you wanted to).

I'll need to go back and analyze it further, but it really felt like a fun roller coaster ride. I added it to my Gamefly Q and look forward to playing through it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Demos... Sigh.

After geeking out on my Wii for a while it was time to get back to the 360 and check out some new downloadable demos.

I checked out:

  • Tenchu Z (retail demo)
    • The initial experience was tragic. Lots of character setup that wasn't very interesting. The choice of characters wasn't very exciting. Moreover, after I spent several minutes navigating the game shell and setting up the game, I died instantly and needed to go through the whole process again.
    • Combat was... Puzzling. Maybe I was supposed to sneak around the first two guards, but they had spears and I had a short sword and they made mincemeat of me. Player death = start all over (including character setup) which is not very appealing.
  • Omega 5, Triggerheart: Exelica, Operation Darkness, Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (XBLA demos)
    • The first two were shooter-scrollers (side and top-down) in classic Japanese style (scantily clad female characters; buff and strange looking male characters). They seemed pretty hard core in terms of challenge ramp (lots of flashes on screen; easy to die; limited lives). I imagine these games might be most appealing to fans of the genre (and IP).
    • Operation Darkness seems to have some promise. Unfortunately the game shell was awkward and let me set up a battle that was not very fun to conduct. There was too much micromanagement - I needed something a little more manageable for an initial experience. I may try it again as it has a kind of Advance Wars feel -- but I worry that the 3d environment and complex UI will make it far less playable.
    • Rocketmen: Axis of Evil was an attempt at a quirky/cheesy isometric camera shooter. It didn't really engage me -- but I'm not necessarily a fan of this genre of game.
I've got a retail copy of Tenchu Z (and Ninja Gaiden 2 -- perks for working with one of my clients) so I'll check these titles out in a little more detail later on this week.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Finished Super Mario Galaxy...

What a fun ride. It was enjoyable to the end. The pacing and challenge felt just right and the main plot progression allowed for skipping content that was less enjoyable (if you wanted to) while leaving huge chunks of the world to explore at your leisure after you beat the game.

It's the first Mario game I've beat. Usually I give up as they're too hardcore or frustrating. This one reminded me a lot of Ratchet & Clank with all the cool environments and puzzles. The sound and visuals were pleasing and the core platforming mechanic was enjoyable except for a couple of problematic levels where I had to fight the camera.

I'm tempted to play more... But my queue is getting longer by the minute.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More SMGalaxy Goodness

I'm just getting a short Super Mario Galaxy break in. This, of course, is another great feature of the game: I can just take in a 10-15 minute snack if I want, which makes it fit well with my schedule.

Moreover, the game doesn't generally penalize you for forgetting some of the game play mechanics. There is always a learn-as-you-play tutorial at the beginning of each level that introduces (or reintroduces) necessary mechanics. Of course, this is Super Mario Galaxy, so you don't FEEL like you're being put through a tutorial. But, through clever and enjoyable level design and scripted events you are forced to learn without even realizing it. This game is simply magnificent in this respect.

I recently encountered my first hiccup in game play challenge ramp where it took a little bit more of a struggle to figure out how I was supposed to approach the world. That said, the game had already built up so much trust in the way it eventually rewarded "just screwing around until you figure it out" that I felt comfortable persisting and eventually figured out the parts I was supposed to.

I have a feeling I'm going to end up liking this game as much as Ratchet & Clank and Kingdom Hearts 2 -- two games that (at least in my mind) have clearly influenced this version of SMG.

I have "obtained prominence"

I haven't posted here in a while. I've been posting a bunch more business related stuff in my private blog -- more about the ins and outs of my new consulting business.

Anyhow, I've spent the past few days evaluating Ninety-Nine Nights. I remember trying the demo and not being that impressed. But I needed to familiarize myself with the game for another title I'm working on.

The initial experience is lousy, to say the least. As is the challenge ramp, character progression, save system, UI, and the list goes on.

That said, there are some components that give me hope for the game.

It is fun to wade through armies of peons on a large battlefield with some friends at your back and the support of larger armies. While I can't help get the sense that there are simply too many combos that are too randomly computed to make heads or tails of them, some elements of strategy have emerged later on in the game.

The problem isn't so much imputing the rock-paper-scissors of my opponent (though that is somewhat difficult to do in many cases because of bland enemy design and behavior in some cases) but it's more that I can't seem to execute the correct counters because I don't understand what combos are best for each situation.

The main strategy I've uncovered is simply to fight easier grunts and power up my Orb meter. Then unleash the Orb on large groups of tougher opponents. Then unleash the Orb shards on the biggest group of opponents just before a boss battle. Bosses are beaten through attrition: Cower and let your remaining troops distract while you find out its patterns and be sure to save some chests for health potion boosts (or be prepared to wander all over the map in the middle of a boss battle to find one).

I think that a few key changes could make the game worthwhile:

  • Add an outermap RPG system. All the powerups in the game currently feel very random. Leveling up only unlocks new combos. What I'd really like is to be able to pick and choose from a variety of areas to upgrade:
    • Luck: Increase drop rate of items during battle
    • Health: Make it harder for me to die
    • Strength: Make my attacks stronger
    • Magic: Make my Orb attacks cooler
    • Army: Make my armies stronger
  • Provide more opportunities for me to practice and master new combos. Specifically, set up situations where I learn the rock-paper-scissors and am reinforced when I do well and punished (but not too severely) when I'm not paying attention. In addition to a combat arena minigame (that lots of other games have) this could also be achieved through staggered level design, better audio/visual cues when I do well/poorly, and achievements that pop up when I try new things and they have positive results.
  • Differentiate enemies much more strongly. Exaggerate differences between grunts and captains; between swordsmen and club guys; etc.
  • Make boss battles cooler. Involve some puzzle solving or environmental interactions.
  • I can't tell yet whether there is upgradeable equipment (it looks like there might be) but add some more of this into the game. I've been playing for 6 hours and haven't received any new gear.