Thursday, February 26, 2009

Afro Samurai, Skate 2, Hardwood Backgammon, Sonic Chronicles

So, I spent some time gaming this evening. That is, gaming in addition to the usual dose of Facebook Scramble and Turn Play Backgammon

First, I had to dive back into Sonic Chronicles, the DS game from Bioware. As I mentioned in a previous post, the initial experience was rather tedious and frustrating. Having played Bioware games for years, I figured I should still give it a chance as pretty much every one of their games has had a kind of grim first hour or two of game play.

Turns out that it got a lot more fun. That said, I'm not sure it's something I'll spend much more time playing for a variety of reasons:
  • The IP isn't compelling enough. I'm just not a Sonic fan.
  • I've played similar RPGs that have more interesting combat and character selection and advancement. I do like a 4 person party (with lots of characters to acquire and choose from). I do like turn based combat. I just don't find the character advancement, available skills and equipment upgrades, and combat options to be as well done and polished as similar other games I've played recently. 
  • I really don't like the exploration mode: I want to explore the world as I would a platformer, not a pixel hunter. Yet because my movement input is a stylus, I am drawing all over the screen to try and get my characters to move where I want them.  Even more frustrating is the fact that my hand covers most of the screen when I'm using the stylus, blocking my view.
  • That said, I do like the idea of using the stylus during combat -- both for QTE minigames and for target selection. However, there needs to be a clear visual and auditory cue when the player is about to be presented with a QTE. More importantly, the QTE minigames are not well calibrated, especially for the beginner.  The QTE need to ramp up in difficulty from simple to more complex. The QTE UI elements could probably be a little more intuitive (it took forever to figure out some of the "timing" elements -- and I failed many, many times without realizing why).
  • I find myself skipping all the reading parts. I just don't see Sonic as much of a reader or talker and can't for the life of me begin to care about what all the characters have to say to each other. Maybe if I was more into the IP I would read more? I'm not sure. I read the heck out of Mass Effect ... It's not that I don't like reading dialog, but maybe I just don't expect to have that much reading in what I consider to be a platformer universe.
I also managed to play a few 360 demos.

I've played Hardwood Backgammon before, but decided to try it again given my new interest in playing Backgammon on Facebook. The Hardwood version isn't very exciting, but it mostly gets the job done and is certainly easier to use than the Facebook version. Of course, it does NOT allow asynchronous play (none of the XBLA turn based games do as far as I know), which is a shame. Taking my turn in various Facebook games has certainly been a key reason I log in so often -- and I have to believe I'd do the same if XBLA supported play-by-email options.

The highlight of the night was Afro Samurai. I loved the art direction and integration of comic book design into cutscenes. I think it really takes what the Penny Arcade folks did to the next level. Having great VO by Samuel L. Jackson doesn't hurt, either. Outside of combat the game feels very well written and polished.

As far as combat goes, I'm going to have to spend a bit more time breaking it down (the demo was quite short -- but sweet). Basic attacks and combos didn't feel quite right. I'm not sure whether it was my character poses/animations, the enemy hit reacts, the rumble, the camera, or "all of the above". There were some cool finishing animations and slo-mo attacks, but the nuts and bolts of combat vs. multiple enemies felt a bit off.

I was unable to figure out exactly how combos fed into my power meter. Truth be told, I was given a lot of functionality right off the bat -- and I'm assuming that the actual game layers these components on a little more slowly so the player can absorb them more deeply. Still, I'd like to know how I power up the "over" attack mode which functions a bit like Ninety Nine Nights orb spark (you dash quickly in different directions doing massive damage to anyone standing nearby).

Criticisims aside (and there are others, including: inability to switch options in the pause menu; inability to set the horizontal camera control to inverted even from the main game shell), the demo was tight. I'm not familiar with the actual source material (graphic novels or animated series) but I definitely felt like I was dropped into a world that I thought was cool and that I wanted to explore. Even though I have some concerns about combat, the demo left me wanting more.

Enough to buy the game? Not sure. I'm definitely bumping it up my Gamefly Q -- but we'll see. If I work on another action/brawler title, I'll definitely have to study it and Conan (which is also on my desk).

Finally, Skate 2. Not a genre of game I usually play for no reason other than none of the skateboarding games ever made me feel cool. The only extreme sport game I ever liked was Aggressive Inline. It had a pretty low bar in terms of accessibility, hot female skaters, and really cool environments. Basically, it was fun to skate and explore.

Skate 2 is another example of a game that is completely geared towards its (hard)core market. It was completely inaccessible to me. After 15 minutes of game play, I could barely stand up on the skateboard. Career mode left me stuck and unable to continue about 10 minutes in. The Freeplay mode started with a "bang" that meant every 12-15 seconds my character died and I had to restart. Whoops.

Although it hardly seems worth mentioning, I actually did bother to try to customize my skater. Stupidly, in retrospect, I chose a female skater. I should have known something was up when I got a dialog box asking me to confirm that I was sure I wanted to change the gender of my skater from male to female -- the default female characters were fuh-uh-ugly. Whoah. Freakishly ugly. Not just out of shape (though some of them were) but not even average in appearance. Hair, eyes, facial structure, you name it. The clothes were mostly unflattering.

Seems to me that character creation and customization is a pretty known and solved science:
  • Start with attractive and popular defaults. At least have 2-3 presets that have "buy in" from some sort of art director.
  • Add a "random" character generator button. Let players jam the button a bunch of times to get a sense of the possibilities and either accept one as is, or take one he/she mostly likes and tweak the rest.
  • Yeah, it's cool to let me know that there are lots of unlockables in the game. Still, try to organize options such that it's easy to scroll through the currently available options instead of having to stream through pages of locked content.
In some ways I wonder whether the demo might have been better with the following:
  • True freeskate mode. One map available as SP or as online play (can join/host). Default attractive skaters as playable characters (but allow players to customize from a small set of content).
  • 4-5 self-paced tutorial modules. These could be executed as quests in the freeskate mode. Break down a few of the basic skills and let players practice them at their own pace -- not when under the stress of some arbitrary time constraint.
It's too bad (in my mind) that skate games are so hardcore. In my mind I still have the fantasy of relaxing while listening to music and skating around and exploring a cool world. Possibly coordinating stunts with friends like we did when we played co-op Crackdown

Maybe I can still hope for an Aggressive Online MMO. That would be cool.

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