Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Lag Beast Striketh

During a session of Dungeon Runners last night, I experienced the bane of many online gamers. While in the midst of my thirteenth quest to defeat [fill in a number] of [insert monster type], I found my character unresponsive to my commands, whereas the monsters he had attacked a fraction of a second earlier were quite active. Yes, lag had bound my poor hero in place while he was decimated by a swarm of creatures who had no business killing him. At least at my current level, Dungeon Runners seems to have no death penalties, since I merely respawned in town and found myself unfettered by my previous demise. Anyway, I need to log back into the game tonight to finish mowing down whatever fiendish thingamajigs I missed yesterday.

On the console front, my wife and I have spent a good many hours playing Final Fantasy VII over the last few days. We are now past the game's most famous spoiler, which makes my life much easier. I can freely talk about the game without censoring myself upon the mention of important plot points. As an old-school roleplaying fan, though, I still find myself surprised by the malleability of FFVII's characters. The Materia system, while madly customizable, ends up making your rock collection more important to combat than who you bring with you. I suppose this tends to soften the blow when a 'critical' member of your party leaves for some reason or another; the loss of your only healer would greatly complicate things for the rest of your party. However, does anyone else see any irony in a game with such an epic, sweeping plot forcing you to say, "Well, what did s/he have equipped again?" several times in quick succession and placing the exact same stuff on someone else?

I saw a couple of new trailers recently which may complicate my gaming budget during the holiday season. Tomb Raider: Underworld has a teaser on Xbox Live which left me scratching my head. The video begins with what I thought were Lara's trademark pistols underwater. Well, they turned out to be dry, but everything after that is where things go bonzo bananas haywire. I will leave you to form your own opinions, but I must say that Eidos and Crystal Dynamics accomplished their mission of getting me intrigued by the goings-on. I also downloaded the Prince of Persia gameplay montage, which has some really good music. Seriously -- the ethereal, yet mournful, tune accompanying the trailer left me with a tear in my eye earlier today. I am also a big fan of well-done cel shading, so the art style scores massive points in my book.

Well, off to track down whatever those silly things were. Take care, and keep your controllers charged!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Secrets Nobody was Really Trying to Keep

In all my Too Human gushing and Fallout 3 bashing last time, I forgot to mention a couple of other titles which have kept me occupied over the last couple of weeks. I downloaded the trial version of Ikaruga from Xbox Live, and I have spent a solid couple of hours on the one level which is playable. Seldom do I find myself returning to a game which smacks me so soundly about the face and neck; my friends and family can attest to how well I handle personal failure. However, a part of me knew Ikaruga was going to rake me over the coals of shame. I think that foreknowledge of the game's brutal, yet fair, difficulty somewhat ameliorated my typical fits of worthlessness. Come on -- the very first thing you see in the game is a goofy quote about dying! I have been playing vertical shooters since the NES, and Ikaruga is a joyous return to those pattern-memorizing, button-firing days of constant explosions and continue screens. I particularly like the 'battle report' screen which is displayed after a level is cleared. After over a dozen runs through the demo level, I have yet to achieve a rating better than C++. Clearly I need more practice.

I also downloaded Dungeon Runners, a free-to-play online RPG published by the same folks responsible for the Guild Wars franchise. I have been asked by several people through the years why I never got into World of Warcraft, EverQuest, or other massively-multiplayer games. My short answer is that I cannot get over the hurdle of paying someone every month for continued access to software when new games are constantly being released to draw me away from whatever PC time-sink is the current rage. I know that servers must be maintained and all that, but I have such a limited gaming budget that any online game will most likely become the only gaming experience I can afford. Anyway, I heard about Dungeon Runners while watching G4 a couple of weeks ago, so I downloaded the game and created a character. The gameplay is all right, but I find the main draw is the satirical take on roleplaying at large. From every item carrying absurd descriptors to townsfolk who poke fun at their own lack of motion, the game can never be accused of taking itself too seriously. My personal favorite quote came from the first merchant, who said upon my approach, "You know that town where everyone acts like they're in the Renaissance? Yeah, those guys suck."

Enjoy your weekend, and may your routers not require recycling.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Full-Priced Software Beckons

I did some counting, and I bought five games at their full retail prices last year: Super Paper Mario, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Assassin's Creed, in chronological order. That is quite out of the ordinary for my cash-strapped self, who usually gets a console toward the end of its lifespan and picks up tons of games at discount rates or as pre-owned titles. For example, my original Xbox was purchased after it had been declared dead by Microsoft, and I paid no more than thirty dollars for any of my games for the system.

I do not foresee that sort of outburst this year; I had followed all but one of last year's acquisitions with impatience since their respective announcements. My wife also no longer works for a major retail chain, which means I do not pass a shelf of games whenever I meet her on her lunch break. However, there are a couple of games which are calling to me. One is Too Human, Silicon Knights' cyber-Norse action RPG. As an Xbox Live Silver member, I was finally able to download a demo of the game, and I have enjoyed my time with the game immensely. While it took some time getting used to the controls, the feel of combat is pretty intuitive to me, even with only one character class playable. The unique twist on a grim mythology is also a draw, and the negative press the game is drawing for its long development cycle makes me want it to succeed. I am also intrigued by Mirror's Edge, which I can honestly say Electronic Arts has been unable to do since the first Lord of the Rings game. On paper, a first-person platformer sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the chance to look through the eyes of a person pulling off Prince-like acrobatics has me chomping at the bit. Speaking of puffy white pants, the new Prince of Persia game also whets my appetite, but I think I can wait a while for that one. It most likely will not need purchase numbers to speak in its defense as Too Human very well might.

In other news, this past week's E3 coverage has revealed two more games which make me regret my lack of a PlayStation 3. LittleBigPlanet looks awesome, and the community aspect of the game has enormous potential that has (in my opinion) not been available for a console before. I am also itching to see more of inFamous, Sony's upcoming open-world title. Most sandbox games would appeal to the explorer in me, but they tend to either cast me in the role of a decidedly non-lawful, non-good protagonist or feature so much violence that I get turned off. By this time in 2010, there might be enough games out there to warrant a new system purchase -- assuming someone has yet to force a new console generation on us by then.

I was not expecting this, but one game I was looking forward to playing has fallen off my list thanks to what I saw at E3. While gamers the world over were slavering in response to the Fallout 3 footage, I found the over-the-top gore on display unpalatable. Before anyone comments, I did play the first Fallout, and I am aware of how violent that game was. I am evidently in the minority of gamers who are satisfied that a defeated opponent simply falls to the ground. Blood spilling from a gunshot wound is realistic, whereas human beings falling apart from a sniper rifle shot is unnecessary. I cannot say how much of the carnage in the demo was due to the Bloody Mess perk/trait that apparently everyone who is not me will grab at the first opportunity, but bodies exploding into pieces repeatedly does not make me want to buy a game. Although taking someone out with a projectile teddy bear is hilariously awesome, I simply do not need another game I have to wait to play until everyone else in the house is asleep.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Deus Ex Mardaneus

The only gaming in my house of late (besides my wife's Dragon Quest exploits and a few pitiful runs of Geometry Wars) has been Divine Divinity. I was really struggling with the early areas as a Survivor (what you would call a Rogue outside Belgium) because I could not, for the life of me, obtain a decent bow or dagger. Wielding a dirk in the midst of swarms of skleletal warriors is nearly the epitome of inefficiency. However, once I scored a sweet composite bow of swiftness, I was dropping skeltons like it was my life's calling. This should seem as weak as, if not weaker than, my previous stabbing exercises, but the experience is still awesome.

I reached a particular part of the game, though, which really irritates me. Without dumping spoilers all over you, your character finds himself (or herself) surrounded by a number of enemies roughly equal to the gross national product of Albania. To sweeten the pot, some of these foes are capable of conjuring even more monsters, and one of them summons monsters which can -- get this -- summon minions of their own. Now I get why summoned baatezu in D&D cannot use their own summoning powers. Anyway, my wicked awesome bow and I successfully eliminated every creature in the room except the aforementioned conjurer summoner, who could cripple my guy in a single shot even without his instant army. Needless to say, I died in quite an ignominious manner. After reloading, I made a run for the room's exit once I cleared a path from myself to the door; I was basically desperate for some sort of terrain advantage I could exploit. When I reached my destination, an NPC marched into the chamber and promptly annihilated the rest of the room's inhabitants.

I am definitely one of the last people on the planet to assign my opinion to others, but who plays games to watch other people do cool stuff? If I wanted to relish someone else's exploits, I would grab a novel or a movie. Or cast Bahamut Zero or Knights of the Round. I have always had a soft spot for running away with my tail between my legs while the real heroes ® deal with whatever problem I have caused. Remember how Drizzt tells you to get out of his gnoll-killing way in Baldur's Gate? Of course not -- that would sort of suck the heroism from your party at roughly the time they start getting strong. In an action-oriented game like Divine Divinity, I claim that moves of this sort are even less forgivable, since much of the game's appeal is seeing how effective a killing machine your character really is.

I guess I could claim some kind of moral victory in my near-clearing of the room, but I cannot help but escape the feeling that the designers meant for that last guy to hand the player his or her head on a charger. This will possibly weaken the rest of the game for me, since any defeat will make me wonder if I should bail out because the fight on my hands is supposed to be too much for me. Cue the Monty Python jokes, people!

By the way, if you got the rather obscure reference in the first paragraph, you are officially eleven kinds of awesome.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Clicking Finger Itches

With all the Diablo III hubbub flowing about the gaming community, I find myself craving the point-click-kill experience treadmill pioneered by the good folks at Blizzard -- sorry, Activision Blizzard. I was never really able to enjoy the original Diablo to its fullest, since my poor 100-MHz 486 machine ran the game way too slowly to be any fun. By the time I bought another computer, however, clock speeds were such that any attempt at playing the game resulted in near-instant death. I never played Diablo II, and I have no idea how my current computer would handle the software. However, it runs an even older game superbly. How much is that Battle Chest again?

On the other hand, I have a solution that does not tax my wallet in the slightest. A year or so ago, I picked up a $9.99 copy of Divine Divinity at Target, but I put the game away after a couple of play sessions. I enjoyed the game; it simply fell victim to the classic 'I have too many games to play at once' syndrome which befalls so many of my titles. I think I will dig that out of the basement and give the disc another whirl. At the very least, it buys me a few days before the itch overcomes me . . .

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Cheese Stands Alone (In a Perfect World, Anyway)

I believe I may have figured out the cause of my abandonment of Sands of Time. The last few sections of the game leave you without the ability to rewind time, so mistakes become much more annoying. The next-to-last combat in the game is also fairly lackluster, since it all but requires you to keep hitting the same two buttons in the same sequence until you are the only thing left moving. However, I can see now that the rest of the game more than makes up for that slightly irritating segment. The game's sequel, which took the combat system and injected enough steroids into it to kill a sperm whale, was much less immersive. I still need to finish Warrior Within, but Sands of Time definitely left me wondering why the game industry feels a need to franchise every awesome title which comes out. While I candidly admit that I have not fully experienced the storyline of the second and third games in the series, I can say that the first game would have stood brilliantly had it been the only title.

This week, I hope to get more of a chance to play some Deus Ex. I might also pop Warrior Within into the Wii; at the very least, the poor thing needs to be reminded I have not forgotten it.

Have a great week, and may your discs dodge the dust like they have their own dodge buttons.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Three Notes from the Fourth

This post's material actually began last night,when my wife celebrated the lack of work today by staying up late playing Dragon Quest VIII. This left me bereft of my usual entertainment source, so I fired up Baldur's Gate for the first time in a week and a half and pushed through a few side quests. I am now almost out of things to do before attacking the main quest of Chapter Three. Well, I could go back and clear out the bow-wielding hobgoblins from whom I had to retreat, but I find missile-launching enemies to be one of the banes of the Infinity Engine. Honestly, monsters with bows, crossbows, throwing daggers, and so forth tend to be more trouble than they are worth. My trip back into the second-edition D&D rules has convinced me that save DC's for spells are a good innovation; having an opponent blow through my web spell regardless of how well my mage does her job is just stupid.

After Sandi hit the hay, I worked my way through the training mission of Deus Ex. I like the game mechanics, but the controls will take some acclimation. I struggled with disarming mines because I would either take too long reaching them or let the cursor slip past them. PC gaming gurus will undoubtedly take this opportunity to climb upon their soapboxes about the superiority of mouse-and-keyboard controls. They may be right, but I struggled to aim with a mouse as far back as Dark Forces. Perhaps my years of console gaming have dulled my catlike reflexes. Maybe my hyperactivity makes it impossible to get the targeting reticle to move with the precision I hear lauded at every turn. In any case, I will take a whack at the actual game later tonight.

This afternoon, we finished playing through Tomb Raider: Legend. In the interest of keeping things spoiler-free, you may highlight what follows. For starters, Lara Croft has the most deceptively powerful arms in the universe, given the ease with which she whips a freaking falchion off her back. The plot was fairly involving, but it could have left fewer questions at the end. How did Amanda know so much about the sword and its powers? About what exactly was Lord Croft 'right' for so long? Perhaps I am lost here due to my lack of experience with the Tomb Raider franchise, but I consider that a poor defense of the story department. More likely, the conclusion was meant to lead into a sequel. In closing, that pistol-whip at the end looked particularly painful.

The platforming and puzzle-solving of Legend really seemed to pique my wife's interest, so I suggested we take Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time for a spin next. Upon playing the game again, I find myself wondering why I have not revisited this game since finishing it in 2004. The storytelling still enthralls me; the level designs are slick; the combat, while not outstanding, gives me the chance to feel awesome on a frequent basis. I can only conjecture that I hate having to disconnect my DVD remote's sensor from the system. For some reason, it always freaks out the game's main menu. I remember taking back my first copy of the game, convinced it was defective. At some point, I really should complete the other games in the series, but that only tacks more games onto my playlist.

Have a great weekend, and may your consoles be red-ring-free.