Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No(gaming)vember to remember...

Actually, it wasn't "no" gaming. It was more bite-sized gaming without leaving enough time to post thoughts.

And I was on the road for over 2 weeks this month (one week working on a game that I can't talk about yet; one week on vacation in Maui which does not lend itself to sitting down and writing at my laptop).

Things I tried (and plan to write about):

  • Getting a "sweet move" to feel just right: Comparing the challenge of catching the perfect wave with the feel of a sweet double jump.
  • My silly obsession with completing all the achievements in Plants vs. Zombies (and why it makes a great bite-sized game experience).
  • The Torchlight demo -- and my possible return to hardcore PC gaming.
  • My current Facebook games: Why I continue to suck at Backgammon and why I seem to be getting worse at Scramble -- but why I still love to play them.
  • My crush on the official Modern Warfare 2 trailer (the one with the Eminem track that hasn't generated all kinds of controversy) and why it not only got me excited about the game, but also got my wife excited.
I'm also in the midst of doing a bunch of judging for a Serious Games competition (can't talk about it yet) and the Indie Games Festival competition. I'm done with the serious games part and am super looking forward to the Indie and student games competitions.

December is going to be a bit of a reboot month for me. I'm hoping to dive deeper into several projects I'm interested in working on and will report results here.

And, of course, the stream of retail and social/online games continues... I plan to play and write about lots more games.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Steam Offline Experience: It may not be news, but it certainly is a kick in the teeth

Just pulled out the old laptop to try the Torchlight demo while on layover in SLC. 


Double cick the icon. Get "cannot connect to Steam network" error. Huh.

Try again. Same result. Notice that I'm posting this via the internet using SLC's free wifi.

Double whoops.

Having worked on multiplayer PC games (and, of course, played them) I'm aware that firewall settings sometimes prevent the connections you need to run (or in this case, apparently, update) your games. Fair enough. This is exactly the reason why I'm mostly a console gamer and only play web-based games on my laptop. I just don't have time for that kind of frustration.

But, the best part is this: Apparently it is possible to play Steam demos and games in single player mode while offline, provided you follow this confusing set of instructions. It's a multistep process that involves testing things out along the way with your computer unhooked from the internet to ensure the process has worked correctly. Perhaps my favorite step is step #4:

  • Go to Settings to ensure the Do not store account information on this computer option is not selected.

Love the double negative. Love the fact that to the layperson like myself, this makes no sense whatsoever.

Mostly, I love the fact that because I'm currently unable to connect to Steam I cannot tell my game to allow me to play it offline. It's a single player demo for goodness' sake.

Bonus points: Nothing about the original "can't connect to Steam" error message let me know that (a) the game required an online connection to play; except that (b) there are options you can set to make (a) go away.

Sigh. Guess it's back to coin harvesting in Plants vs. Zombies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Uncharted 2, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. Yeehaw.

Just a brief post. This is another month that is swamped with work and travel.

I'm also going to try a more intensive writing project: I had a blast trying to blog 30 in 30 days, so I decided to try to do a "half-NaNoWriMo". 25,000 words in a month and I'm already a few days behind. Heck, I did about 15-18,000 words in August, so... Well. We'll see.

Uncharted 2. Yep, it was a sequel. Nope, there wasn't all that much new in terms of game play mechanics or depth of story. That said, Round #2 was still an incredibly absorbing and entertaining romp. Even though the twists and turns were cliche, I still got incredibly attached to the characters -- and the movie finale was as emotionally satisfying as Eternal Darkness, Prince of Persia, and Beyond Good & Evil. Why? Great dialog and acting. Naughty Dog are among the elite in this area. The only games that (in my mind) have competed are GTA IV (not a fan of the game play in these games, but the fourth installment actually made me and my wife want to watch cut-scenes they were so well written and produced) and possibly Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (not so much for the animation and physical acting, but definitely for the writing and voice talent).

Really, I kind of felt like I was playing a Joss Whedon epic in some ways. Specifically, the "Out of Gas" episode from Firefly (I actually haven't watched any of his other shows). The way that Nathan/Mal deal with adversity with humor and grit endeared both characters to me and made me care about the outcome of the game. Sure, in the back of my mind I knew that the hero of the story would "win" (i.e., kill all the bad guys and save the world). But at what cost? That of his friends and loved ones?

Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. By my reckoning, I've given Sony over $500 of my hard earned cash and one Xbox 360 (which I traded for a PS3) because of the joy that Insomniac Games brings to me every time I get my hands on the next Ratchet & Clank installment.

My only complaint? I got stuck at the very end trying to figure out where the final boss encounter took place. It's something that I'm sure I wasn't alone in and probably was caught too late to fix. It's mainly sad, because the fix would have been pretty easy (and the issue may have, in fact, been exacerbated by a bug). Thankfully, the game is fun enough to grind around in that "being lost/unsure what to do next" wasn't really all that frustrating.

There were other minor complaints, I guess. The maps have taken a slight step backwards in terms of usefulness (hard to tell where you've been and where you have yet to explore). Flight controls felt awkward and unsatisfying. This meant that air combat needed to be nerfed so as not to block progress. The UI for inspecting, upgrading, and mapping weapons was unwieldy (I never did figure out how to map weapons to different hot spots -- but this was a minor issue because by default the game paused when I went into select mode).

But, really, none of those complaints really mattered. I was hooked from the first moment I smashed a crate and was showered by glowing, floating bolts. The feel, the look, the sound... There are few games that get this just right. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Lego Starwars, and Ratchet & Clank. I can just wander around for hours smashing things and watching bolts swirl up and around me.

In the end, the one thing that is clear to me is that the folks at Insomniac are lovers of games. Specifically, lovers of action adventure, action rpg, and platformers. Elements of Bioshock and Lego Star Wars were perfectly integrated. Sure, I didn't have the choice to either kill or save the Zonis, like in Bioshock... But it was a super nice touch to allow me to "fix" broken items (a la Lego Star Wars) when I played as Clank. Travel between worlds was a more integrated minigame like in Kingdom Hearts 2 instead of just a choice of menu selections.

In some ways, I'm left to wonder about how Insomniac goes about figuring out "what is the right amount of choice" for players. For instance, there were too many weapons for my liking (a complaint I have about previous versions of the game). I mostly grabbed them and leveled them all up because it was something to do while grinding. I would have been happier with just one wheel of weapons. That said, I totally understand the desire to present players with a wide range of entertaining and satisfying weapons (that's a big part of the franchise vision). I just find it hard to care about all of them -- at least at normal difficulty when I can level them all up via grinding so that they are powerful enough to overcome any tactical oversights.

Moreover, the game is based on a hub system, so the player almost always has choices about what to do next and can complete many segments of the game in an arbitrary order.

However, the player is never left with a moral or story choice -- either through dialog choice or game play. There are RPG elements to the game, but there is no RP. Given the difference in powers that Ratchet (he breaks things with his wrench) and Clank (he repairs things with his rod) bring to the table, I wonder whether players could have been presented with some compelling choices in terms of how to solve game play problems in ways that had an impact on the final outcome of the game.

Anyhow, much love and respect to the folks at Insomniac and Naughty Dog. Kudos on the well executed and polished games. I look forward to next iterations and new IP.

Maybe I'll even give Resistance 2 a try...