Sunday, November 30, 2008

Speaking of sandboxes... Kingdom for Kelflings

Kingdom for Kelflings is the kind of game I'd like to put in front of casual gamers to see whether it appeals to them or not. It's a pretty relaxing city builder game (like the Sims or a non violent RTS). You get to play using your 360 avatar (the Xbox version of a Mii) as a giant amongst peons, which is actually quite fun. And I'm assuming this will get even cooler when you get to meet up with your friends in online play.

There isn't too much to it -- there's a giant "tech shrub" that you can plow through via a combination of exploration, quest completion, and econ management. The learn as you play experience was a little jumbled at the beginning and strangely left me unsure of what to do next... I was told to "build a Keep", but unlike with any of the previous tasks there were no apparent clues as to the next steps required. It turns out that this was the LAST objective and it's the goal for the rest of the game. The problem is that the game never let me know that this was the case (I need to figure out how to advance my civ until I can build a Keep) which made me feel like I had broken the tutorial since there wasn't any obvious direction to pursue.

We did something like this with Rise of Nations -- only we made it very clear when players moved from "follow the voice of god" to "you're on your own -- take what you've learned and try and defeat the enemy". The whole frustration would have never occurred had the message been "The tutorial is now over. Try and figure out how to build a Keep to win the game!"

Oh, well.

Anyhow, the game was relaxing and fun enough for me to purchase it (800 points or $10). Reasons that I think the upsell was successful:
  • I was offered a chance to purchase the game each time I gained an achievement. I gained 3 achievements in the first 10 minutes. It's hard to pass that up if you're into gamer points.
  • The initial experience was quite pleasurable once I stopped trying to treat it like a watered down RTS that lacked important advanced features (like resource rates, quick keys, queuing up of remote peons, selecting all idle workers, etc).
The basic decision that they made was that you control an avatar (like Pikmin, Overlord, Goblin Commander) instead of a targeting reticle (like Battle for Middle Earth, Supreme Commander). What this means is that the moment-to-moment game play is all about your avatar and how he interacts with the world. And, because combat is not at the core of this game, there need to be other higher order competitive or collaborative goals. In this case it seems like world customization is important... But I'm not sure how you share and compare with other players yet. 

Maybe it has something to do with the World Traveler achievement: "play in an online game where 20 different player banners appear"?

I'm willing to play it some more to find out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fracture Demo: More sandbox, please...

Fracture promised mucho fun game play, but I'm not sure the demo really put the game's best foot forward.

After introducing me to a cool tech demo of various weapons, I was dropped into a heavily scripted linear experience. It seems to me that this is a game that would be most fun in some sort of cool co-op or multi-player free for all. There are lots of opportunities for entertaining game play and cool strategery.

The initial learn as you play aspect of the game was quite decent. Experienced FPS players should whiz through it and less experienced players get to explore basic movement and controls in a friendly environment before the threat of combat is introduced.

Moreover, because the weapons were so cool (well, more the environment x weapon interactions were cool) the game still felt fun even though the first 5-10 minutes had no combat at all. I could have easily played for another 10-15 minutes in sandbox mode had there been a bunch of hidden or alternative challenges/objectives buried there.

I did get hung up during the tutorial phase of the game in a classic "whoops" moment. I was introduced to grenades (LT) right away. Then I spent a bunch of time launching grenades/rockets from weapons (RT). Then I was re-introduced to new grenades. Only now I just assumed that they were ammo for my weapon. Whoops! I died several times trying to get my new grenades to work (via RT) until I randomly mashed the LT in frustration and discovered the actual way to use the grenade I was supposed to use. A simple text reminder would have gone a long way...

Unfortunately the level I was dropped into was a little frenetic and challenging for me. Again, this is a tough thing to get right: The combat experience has to be exciting (so the usual beginning tutorial isn't appropriate) but not frustrating.

What I think was most jarring was the fact that the first 5-10 minutes were spent peacefully destroying things and deforming terrain and marveling at the possibilities... And then I was dumped into a linear mission with combat that was tough enough to make me forget about all the cool things and just worry about running and gunning.

I can't help but think that the game would have been much more fun had there been a cool single player sand box mode combined with some sort of co-op against the baddies (where higher difficulty combat is much more fun and much less frustrating) or MP free for all battle component.

New Super Mario Bros: I finished it!

Great game. It's the second Mario game that I've ever finished (the previous being Super Mario Galaxy). Obviously, I'm not a hard core Nintendo gamer.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway -- and something I know I mentioned in my review of SMG -- is the focus on learn as you play. Levels are structured in ways that teach you some relatively complex problem solving skills without you even realizing it as a player.

I'll take some time to write and post screen shots of a couple of sequences in particular, but it's amazing how this DS game compares to a game like Wall-E for the DS that I watched a kid play the other day. In Wall-E, new concepts are taught via text billboards that often have jargonistic text. Not only is the text boring to read, but it breaks the flow of the game and really serves only as an apology for not having enough time to design the puzzle or level in a way that players can figure out in a fun way. This is not to say "dumb it down". Players enjoy challenges that make them struggle and experiment as long as they provide clear feedback to the player about why they either passed or failed and do not overly punish the player for failure.

I think I'll write up a quick piece that compares and contrasts two levels from both of these games to illustrate the difference in approach.

Of course, to be fair to Wall-E, the game did look fun (I wanted to play) and I'm sure they had a much smaller budget than Mario did -- which means less time to iterate and polish levels such that they encourage the player to have fun learning by doing instead of learning by reading text.

Tomb Raider: Underworld Demo... Bump it up my Gamefly Q

Creating a great demo is hard. It needs to be accessible to all gamers yet it can't be so dumbed down that it bores the core market who have played lots of similar games and maybe even previous versions.

Tomb Raider: Underworld was underwhelming in some ways as a demo in terms of game play. But it was really impressive in terms of visual polish and the "feel" of exploration. The game is flat-out beautiful. The music, the attention to detail when it comes to animating Lara Croft's climbing techniques, and the beautiful and lush world make me want to just climb and explore for hours on end.

The combat, however, was a little shaky for an initial experience. The combat system is really designed for slower targets that use cover, not large and fast (and deadly) lions. If I could have changed that one aspect and the unsatisfying ending then I think the demo would have been outstanding. Some of the specific changes I'd have made:
  • Combat vs. enemy humans. This would have been easier to balance and much more accessible. The game isn't really about free form running and gunning (well, at least the previous version wasn't) which is what the demo combat encounters were like.
  • A more satisfying ending. It was clear that after I solved the puzzle I triggered a Quick Time Event (QTE). Unfortunately the way the demo ended and cut to the upsell screen left me feeling that I had failed the QTE and died before realizing that I wasn't even going to get a chance to check out one of the core features of the game. The absence of QTE events in the demo seems weird.
  • More forgiving failure conditions during early platforming/exploration. The initial climb was long and reasonably complex for a early-middle game experience. Unfortunately this meant that as a first experience there was much falling and starting over. This got a little bit frustrating as the punitiveness of the fall tends to make the player less willing to experiment and try new things.
Other things I feel like commenting on...

Using a radial interface for the main game shell menu:
  • I'm not sure this is a great idea. The icons aren't nearly as useful as text labels. Removing text labels has simply meant that more menu selections can be put on the screen at once -- which means more bouncing around because you need to toggle through all of them to find the one you want. Moreover, there isn't any room for context-sensitive help text, so it's hard to figure out what the different toggle options are.
The "learn-as-you-play" experience:
  • I'd like to see the actual intro level to this game. The current "tutorial mode" was a standard series of text billboards that were sometimes contextually relevant (like the first time you stomp a spider) and sometimes way, way, way out of context (like the weapon aiming and firing instructions that were provided whilst I was climbing a huge pillar).
  • The climbing puzzles were a bit too advanced for an initial experience and I'm assuming that they were extra frustrating for first time players. A number of off-camera "leap of faith" maneuvers were required and failure was punished by a significant (but not unreasonable) amount of backtracking.
  • Combat was frustrating and did not feel cool. As I mentioned above, the ranged weapon system is much more suited for human-to-human combat where both sides are exploiting cover and other environmental devices. Being surrounded by multiple strong, fast enemies with little obvious way to get to cover and regroup made for several annoying player deaths.
  • That said, the game does a really neat job of providing cool environmental visual and sound cues to help guide the player. I discuss this in a bit more detail in the next section.
The "where to go/what do I do next" systems:
  • Both the Tomb Raider and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune series try to push realism and pull back user interface clutter in order to bring about an immersive experience in a beautiful world. Lighting, environmental design, character animation, music, and sound contribute to creating worlds that are fun to explore. 
  • Both series also appreciate the difficulty facing the player when they are thrown into a 3-d game world from a 3rd person perspective camera. Not only is the moment-to-moment navigation often a challenge (how do I notice targets that are off-screen?) but it's also difficult to convey an overall map-level understanding of the level (where did I start? where have I been? where do I need to go?).
  • The moment-to-moment navigation requires attention to subtle environmental details (like does Lara lean or not when you pull in a certain direction; are birds perching in a conspicuous place) and patience (letting the camera float to a "best" position if you're stuck and unsure of where to go next). You also get a reinforcing musical "ching" when you've hit the next way point, which assures you that you're making progress and not just backtracking. Of course, it would be nice to have a visual onscreen flash/text, too... But I understand why the game designers decided not to do this.
  • In terms of map-level understanding, there are a few systems in place that reflect great intentions but that fall short in execution. First, there is the 3-d Sonar map. This is a very intimidating 3-d visualization of the game world. It's possible that the player could be gradually introduced to this tool over time, but it certainly seems overwhelming and not very useful. Second is the built in hint system. The basic idea is very clever: Have a spoiler-free method of obtaining hints on your PDA. You need to press A ("hear what to focus on" -- HINT) or Y (hear what to do -- TASK). On the surface this is cool and made me think of the great hint system in Bioshock (level 1 was an in-fiction reminder of your objective; level 2 was the practical "what do you need to do next" explanation). In practice, both hints were so vague as to be unhelpful when I truly was stuck.
I bumped it up on my Gamefly Q, but won't be purchasing it (even though I did purchase the previous version).

Mirror's Edge Demo: Too short, man... too short....

So, I had a quick play of the Mirror's Edge demo. Just as things started to flow, the demo ended. Although the demo had an overall feel of polish and a nice arc from start to finish, I can't help but feel that it missed a real opportunity to sell me on the game.

The visual style is unique and refreshing. The controls feel a little wonky to start with (LB and LT as your primary controls) but might end up working. The problem is that I only had a very short tutorial and then a quick linear mission. This game begs for freestyling yet there was no sandbox opportunity for me to just play around in.

As far as visceral feel goes, the game hovers between good and great. I'd need to replay the demo and pay more attention to the sound, vibration, and camera movement to break it down in greater detail, but my initial thoughts are:
  • The first person feel kind of works (I didn't expect it to at all). That said, there should be opportunities for me to watch myself do cool things -- especially when I'm essentially waiting for a long animation to play (like hauling myself up a ledge or hurtling through the air or rolling on the ground). Maybe it would be disorienting, but I'd like to at least see what something like this would be like. I'd really like to admire my character as I get to do in games like God of War and Tomb Raider.
  • The "door crash" sequence is pretty good. I'd heard about this from a review. I think it could be sweetened a bit more in terms of sound/shake/vibrate, but it's pretty sweet.
  • I wonder whether I'll ever like combat in this game. It makes me think of Assassin's Creed. Not in terms of the combat system, but in terms of how combat just seems so lame in comparison to exploring rooftops in over-the-top parkour game play.
This game provides a really interesting contrast to Tomb Raider: Underworld (I'll be posting about that demo next) in terms of world navigation. Mirror's Edge uses bold saturated non-realistic colors, specifically red, to indicate where to go next. Tomb Raider sacrifices a bit of the "where do I go next" for environmental realism. This makes sense given the emphasis on quick athletic running in the former and slower methodical exploration in the latter.

In the end, I really want to like Mirror's Edge. What I hope is that the retail version is well paced and that combat isn't too painful. If the demo had wowed me, I might have considered buying it. But for now, especially given my current backlog of games, it's a rental.

Pre-birthday housekeeping...

I have a bunch of things to write about after a week away:

  • I finished the New Super Mario Bros (for DS). And as a comparison I watched an 8 year old kid play 30 minutes of Wall-E for the DS.
  • I played a bunch of Nancy Drew Dossier - Lights, Camera Curses (PC - Casual). I also went through the download and install from the Big Fish Games portal site.
  • I watched Liza play a bunch of Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy (PC - Core).
  • It would be nice to finish Dead Space and play a bit more Midnight Club.
  • Oh, and there are a bunch of downloadable demos on my 360 that I need to play already.
Lots of gaming and notes to follow!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wheel out the DS... It's time for New Super Mario Bros

I've decided that I need to play some more handheld games. I'm mostly going to play iPhone games, but I've also had some Nintendo DS games recommended to me recently that I figured I should try.

First up: the New Super Mario Bros. I was never a big Nintendo player as a kid. It really wasn't until I picked up Windwaker that I really played a Nintendo game for more than a few passing moments (I picked up a Gamecube the night I first tried WW). I disliked Mario Sunshine (the 3-d world and mini games ended up more frustrating than fun for me) and Metroid Prime (save points and losing all my powers 10 minutes into the game killed it for me). But I did love the Paper Mario RPG except for the end battle, which I gave up on because I couldn't stand replaying 15 minutes of movies each time I failed and had to try again.

Then game the Wii. The launch version of Zelda didn't really appeal to me. Okami was fresh in my mind and I couldn't get that excited about another wolf + child game. Super Mario Galaxy blew me away, though. I've referred to it in other posts -- but quite simply it was one of the most polished and fun experiences I've had in a while. Moment-to-moment game play was interesting, fresh, and fun. And the learn-as-you-play aspect to the game really set the bar as far as how to introduce players to complexity via fun building block puzzles.

New Super Mario Bros has also been a delight. The most interesting choice that I think the team made was to use the lower touch-screen in a very circumscribed manner. Basically, if you went exploring down a pipe, the game play switched from top screen to bottom screen. The touch pad was really only used for two purposes: Moving from one world to the other and as a place to store an extra powerup that you could use when needed. This meant that Mario still felt and played like other Mario games: You didn't need to use fancy gestures or blowing motions to get him to do tricks. All that was required was the d-pad, A button, and B button.

The game also seemed to be less hardcore in terms of difficulty and challenge than previous versions I played. Maybe I'm just getting better as a gamer, but it seemed like resources (to be spent on power ups, 1 ups, and the like) were plentiful and even though some levels seemed impossible initially, they could mostly be either puzzled through through skill or brute forced through grinding and acquisition of power ups.

One issue that I'm facing right now is that of content discovery. It's clear that there are a number of interesting looking areas that are inaccessible to me right now. Because I'm probably 2/3rds the way through the game, I'm left to wonder whether I've just failed to discover how to access this extra content or whether it will be opened up as part of the final third of game play. 

I think I've mentioned before the issue of "trust" when it comes to evaluating a game and determining whether or not to continue when the initial experience (or a later section of game play) fails to meet expectations. Because I "trust" the game designers at this point (the game so far has been well paced and fun), I trust that I'm not truly missing content due to bad usability or design -- and that I will gain access to these areas when the time is right.

At some point I'd like to delve into this issue deeper to understand the intrinsic (game quality) and extrinsic (marketing, friend reviews, etc) factors that lead to increased or decreased trust -- which will lead to an increased or decreased willingness to forgive a crappy first (or later) impression. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Xbox 360 Avatard...

So, this is my new 360 avatar (well, I've been calling it my "avatard"). It was actually pretty easy to generate and I'm pleased with the results.

It's yet another example of a feature that sounds kind of dumb -- but is totally fun to play around with and has generated a bunch of buzz. Whether that buzz translates to more time (and, of course, money) on the XBL service is an open question.

Of course, I would have desired immediate Facebook (and other SNS) integration right off the bat. No reason why there shouldn't be an app for all 360 fans to install on day one. Instead you need to hack the URL to get your .png image.

That said, I look forward to figuring out what else I can do with my avatar on XBL. It's been fun checking out my friends' avatars -- some of them are quite clever.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Housekeeping (and more Dead Space)

I took some time this evening to clean up my game queues a bit. I need to get organized as I'm falling behind and 'tis the season for decent new releases...

Dead Space is getting most of my console gaming attention. I have 2 friends who are playing Warhammer (the MMO) with some regularity, so I want to keep active with that. My Facebook gaming has slacked off a bit, but I still feed my D&D:Tiny Adventures addiction, play Wordscraper and Scramble with a couple of dedicated friends, and achieve the top achievement (cyborg) on Word Challenge once a week so I can impress my friends.

I really want to dig back into Midnight Club: Los Angeles because I love the game and it was starting to get to the really fun parts (cooler special abilities; cooler ways to pimp my cars). But, I'm backlogged on games I need to play for research purposes:
  • No More Heroes, Alone in the Dark for a Wii game.
  • Fable 2, Fallout 3 for an RPG.
And then there's Gears of War 2, which I don't really care much about -- except for the fact that everyone I know is going to play MP, and I do enjoy going through the co-op campaign on "insane" with friends.

I'm having a feeling I'm going to need to give up on playing through more of Half-life 2 (episodes), the Portal DLC, and GTA IV (which I was really starting to like).

I still need to play Call of Duty 4 and I just updated my "on my radar" section by replacing NHL 2008 with NHL 2009. Woof.

As far as Dead Space goes, I'm definitely starting to enjoy it more and feel like finishing it. It took too long to really get into the game -- and it wasn't until I basically decided to specialize in two weapons and just power them up that combat became fun. The game really doesn't support experimentation with different weapons because you die too quickly before you can figure out how to use them. The game also doesn't support pick-up-and-play because the controller scheme is so hard to remember -- and there's no in-game controller screen to remind you. 

Although I do wonder whether my main motivation to complete the game right now is because I'm over the half way mark, I think that the environmental and combat puzzles have gotten interesting enough to keep going. I do like the world, even though I haven't really been following the story. The zero-g portions of the game are pretty interesting and fun. It feels like it captures what combat in a true 3-d space would be like without being unduly frustrating. 

I've also started having more fun with the "grav gun" which can be very rewarding both in terms of item acquisition (grabbing far away things) and combat (firing explosive tubes or sharp body parts at enemies).

I still feel that the econ and upgrade system is clunky. Moreover, the progression curve is unsatisfying because instead of being exposed to cool new items and upgrades as part of the adventure (e.g., 1 hour in have the pistol; 2 hours shotgun; 3 hours machine gun) I just end up unlocking the ability to purchase these weapons without really trying them out first and seeing them in their best light. When my choice is between the unknown (which, when I first try it I fail at miserably) and upgrading something I'm already familiar with, I tend to go with the familiar.

Unlike other games that structure the experience around the acquisition of a new item (give me a rock, then surround me with scissors) this game presumes that you can decide which weapon you need based on a vague 2 sentence description. Then, after you buy the weapon, you don't have much chance to use it in a carefree way. The game is stingy about ammo drops and there are no sandbox areas where enemies (and items / money) constantly respawn.

Games like Ratchet & Clank do a great job of layering on new gadgets and weapons as part of the core progression path. They are integrated into the story and into level and enemy design. There's an economy backend that supports upgrades and non-critical path items, but resources are so plentiful that you're not really screwed if you end up buying something you don't like.

I'm basically sticking with the pistol (Plasma Cutter) and shotgun (Force Beam) and upgrading them and my armor. I don't even think I use the alt-fire on my Force Beam (I can't even remember what it is). I noticed that one of the achievements is to complete the game with just the Plasma Cutter. I actually don't think it would be that hard to do so.

I'll keep plugging away and hopefully finish it this weekend.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dead Space: More...

So now I'm about a third of the way through the game and I'm starting to enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere even if the combat and econ/upgrade system seem lacking.

The econ system feels derivative of Bioshock and Ratchet & Clank -- except it feels older and more tired. There was nothing ground breaking about the econ in either of these games (they are similar to many other action-adventure w/ light RPG elements games) but they seemed cooler because of the sense of humor and the fact that some of the upgrades and new powers were pretty original and fun. Dead Space is much more like Mass Effect (and many other RPGs) where bonuses are a lot of "X% faster" and "1 point more" upgrades that just don't seem cool to me because they make me think about spreadsheets (I've talked about this before).

Combat is interesting but not very visceral or engaging. Even though aiming is required to be effective, I don't seem to be able to do it very well. Part of me would prefer a smarter aiming system (it's not a MP game, right) that maybe I could upgrade over time. I think that Crackdown has a pretty cool system for making limb/head shots interesting and fun without requiring pinpoint accuracy out of a third person shooter.

Where combat gets most visceral is when in close quarters with an enemy or during several canned sequences that are a lot like quick time events in God of War (and other games). The idea is to mash the buttons in the correct directions (or aim your weapon while you're being dragged on the ground) to try and let you experience much more up close and personal combat as opposed to always having ranged shooting. It's a great idea when done well. The problem with its implementation in Dead Space (at least so far) is that it's hard to tell when you've gone into a quick time event (I died twice mashing buttons during one sequence before I realized I was actually supposed to aim instead of mash buttons like in other sequences) and the control sequence is hard to figure out. When I'm being mugged by an enemy, an A button icon appears. But pressing A -- and even mashing A -- doesn't seem to do anything. I now mash the left stick and A button and it seems to work most of the time. That said, I have no idea how the mechanic is supposed to work.

In terms of pace, I'm torn. I get the scary claustrophobic ambience. I realize I'm in a special suit and can't just run and jump around (except in zero g, which is kind of fun). But it still feels a little sluggish and breaks the immersion when I can't just hop up or down on something waist high.

In terms of in-game controls and UI, it's a bit of a mess. It's super hard to access your inventory when you need to (for instance, to use another air cannister), the map is pretty complex and can be hard to use if you veer too far from the default setting, and the button mappings make it a lot harder to perform combat maneuvers than is necessary. 

Regarding combat button mappings, I expect LT to either (a) lock on an enemy (that I could then sub-lock onto a limb/head) or (b) sight my gun (where I get a reticle and a slightly zoomed in view. Currently it's option B, but without the reticle. It also feels extra wonky to pick stuff up and hurl it -- I feel like I need to press and release triggers and buttons in the right order or else it fails in unexpected ways. I feel like some of these decisions were made in order to have RT be both melee (alone) and ranged attack (with LT), which sort of makes sense (because you can't press a face button to melee attack while aiming the camera with RS) but ends up making default attacks (ranged, special powers) more complicated to execute.

I'm definitely torn on this game. I want to like it more and forgive it the flaws it has, like I did with The Darkness. But I loved the story and character development in that game. I'm not sure the ambience is enough to keep me going until the end -- and the story really does seem like a hodge podge combination of Aliens, Halo, and various other sci-fi movies/games.

I'll give it a couple more levels and see if it surprises me. Otherwise it's back to Midnight Club: Los Angeles.

Dead Space: Initial Experience

Dead Space piqued my curiosity a while back when I saw a teaser trailer. It looked like a survival thriller set in space. Then I heard one of my colleagues talking about the game and how it had some really cool game play mechanics and was a tense and scary experience.

So, I carved out some time for a hands on -- and after a couple of hours I must admit that it's starting to get good. The initial experience was pretty lousy. Had I not been convinced by a couple of other people I trust that the game got better I would most likely have given up and been sad that I purchased instead of rented.

Although the team tried to push the level of immersion to a new level by incorporating the standard HUD into the game world, the sense of immersion was constantly broken by awkward controls.

Some of the issues I noticed:
  • A 3rd person shooter without a reticle makes for a frustrating experience for me. Unfortunately I am generally Y axis inverted, except for some platformers and third person games that don't involve aiming. When I aim I require inversion to drive the reticle where I want it to go. Without a reticle I find myself constantly fighting the Y axis during exploration mode (constantly stare at my feet when I try to look up and vice versa). The thing is that I can't leave it non-inverted or else I won't be able to aim my weapon. I can see how the reticle could be turned off by default (like in King Kong) but there needs to be an option for folks like me.
  • The basic controls were complex enough (and not taught well enough) that I got stuck and almost had to quit when I was about 20 minutes into the game. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how to use the "stasis" power or even how to heal myself.
  • The tutorial isn't very good. It's basically a series of billboards that relies on you remembering the lesson you were taught (if you bothered to read it) instead of having you figure it out as you play along. 
  • Moreover, because prompts often come when you're focused on something else, you often ignore or forget them. This highlights a separate problem: It's almost impossible to find where these tutorial hints are logged (who would have thunk that there would be a set of logs before chapter one?)
  • Basic and advanced controls are hard to discover. It's unclear why the buttons are mapped the way they are. Moreover, a few simple UI affordances would help make remembering controls (especially controls accessed when holding LT) much easier.
  • Progression is weird and slightly frustrating. The basic econ system seems similar to Ratchet & Clank and Bioshock. The problem is that the player is just dropped into the system of shopping and upgrading without much help. This means that the player can waste a bunch of currency by mistake because he/she doesn't understand the tradeoffs involved. There could have been much better pacing of how Credits, Power Nodes, the Upgrade Bench, and the Store were introduced.
  • The level design seems old school in terms of the basics: Find a key, use it to unlock a place you can't reach yet, and don't die. Also, the econ system seems kind of weird from a story perspective: We crash land onto a ship to try and repair it; the ship is malfunctioning and overrun with creatures; yet I still need to gather "credits" in order to spend them in a shop. It's funny how this didn't seem to bother me at all in Ratchet & Clank and only bothered me a little bit in Bioshock
  • Combat seems like it might be interesting... Lots of weapons (with alternate fire) and varied creatures means that there should be some tactically interesting scenarios. However, I have encountered some QTE/button press sequences where I'm being mobbed by enemies that I can't quite figure out (I just die).
The story started in an intriguing way, but then devolved into listening to two of my party bicker back and forth. I want to know more, but I'm not as engrossed in the story as I was with other recent RPG, FPS, and Action Adventure games. Also, I want to know a bit more about my abilities -- why am I able to use telekinesis and stasis? Is it just the suit or do I have special powers as well?

I'm going to give the game a couple of more hours and hope that it will eventually meet the bar of some of the other great single player action/shooter games that have come out in the past few years. It just feels very derivative right now -- kind of a Frankensteinian mixture of Doom 3, Half Life, and Brute Force.

Midnight Club & Dead Space

I finally got my second wind in Midnight Club: Los Angeles. It started out great -- as fun as the original and with more visual and story polish. Then I got a little lost in the wild for a bit. I guess I expected the game to be structured a bit more, so what I ended up doing was losing a lot of races that were too hard for me and spending all my money on speeding tickets. This meant slow progression in terms of performance upgrades (which makes it even harder to win tougher races) and slow progression in terms of cosmetic upgrades (which are at least a third of the fun of the game).

I finally just started milking the easiest races and got the money I needed to have fun (dominate against other low-ranking folks; being competitive against tougher foes; and being able to pimp out my car in cool ways). Now the game is getting much more fun and I can tell I'll be playing a bunch more of it.

One other thing that's really nice about the progression curve: I can earn a ton of cash racing the default car so that I can really soup up the harder-to-drive (more specialized) cars and make them easier to handle when I start out with them. I remember struggling with muscle cars in Dub Edition, but I don't think I'll have the same problem here because I'll be able to buy and upgrade one that handles well before I need to complete those missions.

That said, I need to take a quick break to check out Dead Space. It's just got too much good buzz to let it idle on my shelf any longer.

A couple of quick notes re: Midnight Club, first:
  • LB activates special move. I drove around for a long time before I could figure out how the mechanic work (powers up and then executes on LB press). See, you get the prompt to buy a special move upgrade -- and you get told to use it -- but you never get told HOW to use it. Whoops.
  • Cosmetic car customization is a bit too advanced for me. I much prefered the more restrictive options in Dub Edition because it guaranteed my car would look cool without much fuss. Between awkward camera controls and weird advanced/tecnical features required to customize decals, I think I'll be spending a lot less time on this feature. I can understand why they did this (to be competitive with games like Forza and PGR that have active online communities who love to share car porn).