Monday, December 17, 2012

Zrbo's Five Favorite Songs of the Year

It's nearing the end of the year, so it's time to start rolling out those year-in-review lists.  Here's my selection for my favorite songs of the year.  And yes, just like last year, you may notice that some of these songs aren't necessarily from 2012.

#5 - Psy'Aviah - "Timor"

My fifth favorite song of the year is a Shakira song. No, really! Belgian duo Psy'Aviah (not to be confused with that other Psy who dominated 2012) deliver a fresh take on a song from a completely unexpected artist and genre. While the song has a completely different structure and delivery than the original, the underlying political themes still come through. Psy'Aviah's album "Introspection-Extrospection" is also my favorite album of the year. Oh, and hey, look who uploaded that video!

#4 - Pepsi & Shirlie - "Heartache"

In last year's list I included a song that was most definitely not from 2011, and this year the trend continues. It may be 25 years old, but Pepsi & Shirlie's "Heartache" is like True Blue-era Madonna musical gold. While this version is fine, I've actually been listening to the extended remix more often.

#3 - Armin van Buuren featuring Sharon den Adel - "In and Out of Love"

I realize it's just a trite piece of euro-trance, but there's something about this song that has me hooked. Maybe it's that piano riff that gets stuck in my head, or maybe it's because I'm somewhat in love with Sharon den Adel (who was also on this countdown last year). Considering that it's one of the most watched videos on Youtube though, someone else out there must also be hooked. Like the previous entry, I've been listening to the extended/album mix more than the original.

#2 - The Gregory Brothers - "Oh my Dayum"

I was seriously tempted to put this song at number one I love it so much. I've probably listened to it an average of once a day since I first heard it. I've already discussed my love for it here on this blog. I'm not sure what else to say besides DAYUM!

#1 - Covenant featuring Necro Facility - "Lightbringer"

The album this song is from came out late last year but I didn't appreciate it until I saw Covenant live in San Francisco a few months ago. Covenant continue to turn out some great tunes, and Lightbringer is no exception. Turn up the volume for maximum danceable effect.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Zrbo Reviews: Halo 4 (343 Industries, 2012)

Reviewing Halo 4 is no easy task. As the first in a new trilogy of an already storied franchise, reviewing Halo 4 is perhaps a good exercise for what critics will face when reviewing the new Star Wars movies when they inevitably arrive. Developer 343 Industries has the weight of a massive franchise to carry, with huge expectations to meet, and they mostly succeed.

It's nearly impossible to review Halo 4 without taking a look at it's reason for being. Franchise creator Bungie has moved on to develop its own new franchise (codenamed Destiny), leaving Microsoft, the owner of the Halo franchise, to find a new developer. Instead of hiring an established development studio Microsoft went ahead and created its own. Enter 343 Industries (named after 343 Guilty Spark, one of my favorite characters of the series). Microsoft was not stupid in doing this: Halo is its multi-million AAA premier franchise, and the folks there knew they had to get everything just right. They made plenty of good decisions. First, they brought on former Bungie member Frank O'Connor as the Franchise Development Director. Frank, or Frankie as he's generally known to the Halo community, has been deeply involved with the integrity of the franchise since Halo 2, the keeper of the never-seen "Halo Bible", ensuring story cohesion and integrity throughout the games. Next Microsoft poached some of the best talent in the game industry, bringing people in who worked on the highly acclaimed Metroid Prime games, former Bungie staffers, and as Halo 4 Executive Director the amazingly named Kiki Wolfkill to helm the project.

Seriously, that really is her name

On top of the burden of assembling a new team, there was the problem of finding a story to tell. At the end of Halo 3 the war had been won; Halo 3: ODST was a nice, moody side story; Halo: Reach was a prequel. Everything was wrapped up nice and tight. Again, going back to the Star Wars analogy, creating a new trilogy in the Halo universe must be what it's like over at Disney right now, trying to come up with a new story while honoring what came before. Luckily for 343 Industries, Bungie left them an out.

I've spoken before about how I thought the end of Halo 3 was a brilliant move. As in many blockbuster trilogies there's the question of what to do with the hero at the end. Do we have him (or her) make the big noble sacrifice, securing freedom and safety for the world through their death, or do we have them overcome the odds and win, coming home to a hero's welcome and living happily ever after? Bungie did neither. Series protagonist Master Chief saves the galaxy but instead of making it home to celebrate with everyone else, he's in a sort of limbo, adrift on a derelict spaceship thousands of light years from nowhere, sleeping in a cryosleep tube, with only his holographic Artificial Intelligence companion Cortana to watch over him. Those who were willing to go all the way and complete Halo 3 on its highest difficulty (or who were lazy and just went to Youtube) were treated to a tease of the derelict ship approaching some sort of planet. And that's exactly where 343i picks up the story.

We're not in Kansas

Halo 4 does two things incredibly well: the core gameplay is nigh perfect, arguably the best it's ever been in the series, and second, for the first time a Halo story has a strong emotional core.

Instead of opening on the adventures of Master Chief, the game begins with an exceptionally executed cinematic. We're treated to a scene of Dr. Halsey, the ethical boundaries pushing scientist who created  the supersoldier 'Spartan' program, of whom Master Chief was one of the first. Halsey is being interrogated by someone unknown. The scene has arguably more depth than anything in the Halo franchise before it. It not only gives us an understanding of who the Spartans are and why they were created, but provides the thematic thread of the story by questioning these soldiers' humanity. Are these Spartans saviors or brainwashed killing machines? Lastly, I want to point out the technical achievement of this scene. It may not come through on a Youtube quality video, but the CGI in this scene is incredible. I would swear that Halsey is an actual actress, not a digital creation. Simply phenomenal work.

The game proper picks up with Master Chief being awoken in his cryosleep tube by Cortana (who has never looked so well defined or... sexy). The derelict ship is being boarded as it drifts towards this unknown planet. Cortana, who has served as the series way of guiding you and providing details and insight, is going a little crazy. In the established Halo fiction Artificial Intelligences begin to deteriorate after a certain amount of time, entering a state known as 'rampancy' where they essentially think themselves to death. This provides the impetus for the rest of the story.

This is where things get interesting, as that motivation is kind of odd. While the first two entries in the series portrayed Cortana as your computer sidekick, Halo 3 began hinting that there was something more between this blue hologram and the cybernetically enhanced Master Chief. Halo 4 pushes this even further, moving the relationship towards that of a love story, though never quite going so far as to verbalize that, leaving players to ponder just what the relationship is that these two have. It's actually quite well done, and there's something about that never-actually verbalized love makes the relationship, and Cortana's deteriorating situation, that much more powerful. And it ties in wonderfully with that opening scene. While Master Chief becomes almost robotic in his killing, Cortana's increasingly volatile state seems to make her more human - after all, in order to be crazy you have to exhibit some sort of emotion.

They're in love... I think?

Eventually Master Chief and Cortana are sucked inside of the mystery planet, known as Requiem, which turns out not to be a planet at all, but a completely artificial hollow world built by the ancient long-vanished civilization dubbed 'the Forerunners'. The Chief fights his way through new and interesting foes, uncovering ancient secrets and mysteries. The game is quite fun, though at times the encounter design isn't quite up to par with previous games. Also, the story and your motivations become a little muddled, though I've found this to be an issue with all Halo games.

And a little muddled is probably what someone would feel like if they hadn't played a Halo game before. If you aren't familiar with the fiction, you would rightly feel confused as various elements are brought to light. In fact, the entire plot of the game is pulled from these hidden computer terminals you could find in Halo 3. These terminals provided a backstory that was arguably better written and more compelling than the surface story. They detailed the fall of the Forerunner civilization by simplifying that downfall in the form of two lovers, the Librarian and the Didact, penning letters to each other as a soldier might send letters to his wife from the front lines. There's a fairly exceptional scene in Halo 4 where this story is brought to the forefront, but, if you hadn't played a Halo game or read the terminals from Halo 3 you would have no idea what's going on. Even if you had found the terminals you might not understand what's going on as they progressively revealed more story as you played on higher difficulty levels, so you could only get the full story if you played through Halo 3 on the highest difficulty AND found all the secret terminal locations.

This leads me to a few of the game's faults. The story presented involves knowing the Halo universe in detail and often involves the player having to go outside the game to get more of those details. An example: once again there are hidden terminals in Halo 4 that provide access to short cinematics that fill in some of the backstory. But in order to view these you need to go to the 'Halo Waypoint' app or website, log in, and view them. Why these cinematics aren't on the game disc itself is beyond me.

Most of my other gripes are mainly concerned with technical issues. 343 Industries has revamped Halo 4's multiplayer (where most players spend most of their time anyways) to be more competitive with the juggernaut that is the Call of Duty series. While many of the changes are controversial (essentially adding in the perk-unlocking system that the Call of Duty series is known for) I have actually come to enjoy them. But in the process they trimmed some of the options that have become staples that the Halo franchise was known for. For example, 1-flag capture the flag has been removed (where one team is defending the flag and the other is trying to get it), precision editing in the Forge level editor has been stripped out, and the campaign theater mode is missing (which allowed you to rewatch your story-mode games, edit movies, and take screenshots). These features have become such a reliable part of the franchise that they've become known as 'legacy features'. There's been some talk that some of these features may be patched in later, but for now they seem like oddly missing gaps.

Another misstep is in the music. As I mentioned recently, Marty O'Donnell and his music are out, Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame is in. The music works decently, and it does have a few memorable moments, but all in all it's just somewhat lacking. As one reviewer noted, the music seems much too reactive. I'll just go ahead and quote him as I think he says it best:
The music gets sad, exciting, or ominous in all the right places. But it is reactionary. It builds upon feelings I am already feeling. In previous Halo games, O’Donnell’s music would actually change the way I played. As The Silent Cartographer [level] begins, O’Donnell’s thunderous drums and pounding cello lines prepared me for a battle that wasn’t even on the screen yet. By the time my [ship] touched down on the beach, my adrenaline was already pumping. I hit the ground and slammed head on into the awaiting Covenant forces with everything I had. I played aggressively, because the music made me aggressive. This is the power Marty O’Donnell’s music commands, and it is noticeably missing from Halo 4.
The second thing of note with the music is how hard it is to hear. Someone in the audio department had a field day adjusting volume sliders. Mainly, the guns in the game sound loud, really loud. It makes them feel visceral and powerful. But no one bothered to turn up the music, leaving the score often times obscured by the sounds of really loud guns going off in your face. There's one brief moment when the classic Halo monks can be heard, while it's not until the credits that we at least get a reworking of the classic 'Never Forget', though it's oddly and unfortunately not included on the official soundtrack.

This is what we came for Neil

Overall, Halo 4 is a fairly amazing accomplishment. The team at 343 Industries had the unenviable task of being a new studio working on an established franchise with a devoted fanbase. They not only managed to create a game that feels like a Halo game, but they arguably created a much more emotionally engaging story than any previous Halo titles. On top of that, they created an exceptionally good looking game, pushing the boundaries of current generation console hardware. Seriously, those opening and closing cinematics would make Pixar jealous. There are some odd missteps however, mainly in the technical and audio department, though there's some hope that these can be rectified through patches.

Ultimately Halo 4 provides a terrific foundation for the new trilogy. The world has more surprising stories to offer, and I'm excited to see where they go with the work they put into character development, and most importantly, I can't wait to see where they take the Master Chief both physically and emotionally. Disney - the bar has been set, your move.

4.5/5 Zrbo points

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Elegance of Halo's Title Screens

November 6, 2012 saw the release of Halo 4, the newest installment in Microsoft's premier franchise. I'll save my review for another post. For now I wanted to share something that's otherwise completely innocuous: the Halo title screen. Ever since I picked up the original Halo I've been in love with the music. Series composer Marty O'Donnell (and Flintstone's jingle creator) created an amazing soundtrack for the series, one that eschewed from games of the time by incorporating elements of classical music, world music, and, most memorably, Gregorian chant. Each of these elements are distilled into the Halo title screen, that initial screen that greets you every time you boot up the game. Let's take a look at them.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

The ur-Halo title screen begins with Halo's iconic Gregorian monks while the camera swoops around the ring-world structure. Ahh, it's like I'm in an Enigma video. The music shifts to a bit of classical style music, and then moves into the marvelously named Rock Anthem for Saving the World, another of Halo's iconic themes. Notice the touch of world music with the tribal sounding female vocals in the background. Future Halo titles generally dropped the world influences and pushed more into the classical direction.

Halo 2 (2004)

The sequel's title screen includes the iconic Halo monk chant adding in some female voices and instrumentation. Then the music shifts briefly to one of my favorite pieces of music, Unforgotten, before heading back into some more monkish chant, with some female monks thrown in for good measure (monkettes?). Instead of showing the titular Halo ring, now the screen pans around the (fictional) African city of New Mombassa under attack, highlighted in a purple silhouette. I like to think there's a certain solemnity to Halo's title screens, the combination of music and images providing a sort of soothing calmness, something you wouldn't expect out a game that requires you to mercilessly kill aliens.

Halo 3 (2007)
The third Halo entry was Bungie Studios's biggest to date, needing to show off the chops of the new Xbox 360 hardware. They didn't disappoint. For me, this is my favorite screen of the bunch. As the camera whips around the alien Covenant ships uncovering a gigantic alien artifact in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we're treated to a full suite of wonderful music. Again, it begins with the monk chant, moves into the appropriately named Choose Wisely, moves quickly through the energizing Movement, finishing up the definitive version of Unforgotten, this time relabeled Never Forget (@3:16), which at about 4:10 brings in the piano keys which to me sound, however briefly, that it's going to transition into My Heart Will Go On. This is a classy, elegant title screen if there ever was one.

Halo 3: ODST (2009)
The next entry in the franchise, Halo 3: ODST, was a bit of a departure. Instead of continuing where the series left off, we're presented with a side story. This one follows a group of ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) partaking in a mission that was concurrent with the events of Halo 3. The game was inspired by film noir, with the main character finding himself alone at night in the alien-occupied city of New Mombassa. Your character was much more vulnerable than the normal series protagonist and the game's atmosphere accentuated this. Here Marty O'Donnell utilized saxophone to great effect. The title screen shows main character "The Rookie" in a moment of calm before being dropped into the nighttime city (this is the best video I could find, ignore the visuals and concentrate on the music). The saxophone creates just that bit of tension and mystery that was crucial to the nighttime atmosphere of the story.

Halo: Reach (2010)
2010's Halo: Reach was a prequel to the original Halo, showcasing the fall of the planet Reach to the Covenant invaders. Going into the game, it was already established that this was going to be a losing battle, and the music reflects that. The horns have been more emphasized, giving it a more somber tone. After a brief introduction that includes a bit of a tribal beat, we're presented with a simple matte painting of one of Reach's vistas. The horns are mournful, almost Taps-like, but the music still sounds like Halo.

Halo 4 (2012)

And so here we are now in 2012 with Halo 4. What makes this iteration particularly notable is that Microsoft brought on a new team of developers to helm the franchise, 343 Industries, with former developer Bungie having moved on to other pastures. A new studio means an entirely new team. Gone is Marty O'Donnell as lead audio director. To compose the music for this game 343i brought in Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame. Gone are many of the more classical elements of the music (with most of O'Donnell's work almost completely removed to many fans chagrin), replaced with more chilly electronica, which is appropriate not only because of Davidge's familiarity with the genre, but fits in well with the new alien setting. That being said, the title screen defies this new sound and takes its cues from the more classical, mournful music of O'Donnell. It even brings back that element of world music with the prominent female vocals and the piano keys and horn that pick up halfway through. A beautiful title screen, I've found myself just watching this for a few minutes before actually playing the game.

Well, thanks for indulging me as I reminisce here. I'll be writing up my review sometime soon (hint: it's good). In the meantime, back to shooting aliens, pew pew pew!

Friday, August 17, 2012

An Excellent Critique of the Free-to-Play Model

The piece "There's Nothing to Steal: Why Everyone Hates the Free-to-Play Switch" by Kotaku's Owen Good is a terrific critique of the free-to-play model that's becoming increasingly popular with games. Free-to-play games are games in which there is no initial monetary investment required to play. This is usually supplemented by offering additional abilities for a cost. So, for example, a game might have a cool-down period, where you're only allowed to play for a certain amount of time. If you pay extra money you can buy extra time. I don't think it's a terrible system, and for certain games I think it works.

Take Angry Birds: it's free, but you can spend money for special powers and bonuses, but they're not at all required to enjoy the content of the game. The model breaks down at a certain point though, usually when the game is bigger in scope, or when a game is multiplayer focused, such as with an MMO (a genre that is increasingly becoming free-to-play). Good writes:
There's also some merit in the idea that a person who's participating in something for free isn't as invested in the experience as those who have paid for it. In massively multiplayer online games, this is a valid concern and expectation. Other players are teammates in raids, adversaries in PvP, and drivers of the in-world economy. And it's a role-playing game. While there are dozens of quest-givers and NPCs there to move the game's basic story along, a human community that's committed to playing along enriches the larger context of your superhero/science-fiction/dungeon-crawling fantasy. Someone showing up to a free buffet may socialize with others at the club; he might also be there just to stuff cocktail shrimp in his pants pockets.
Later he goes into an interesting idea that (supposedly) originated from Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records:
Human beings have an inherent need to steal. Deep down, customer satisfaction is rooted in the sense you are either getting something for nothing, something extra, or at least you're getting the better end of a bargain. It depends on a zero-sum system: I'm gaining or taking something, someone else is losing or giving it up. When a game goes free-to-play, even if there's a premium tier with extra features, the owner is declaring there is now nothing that can be stolen. And even if something is being offered for free, everyone can have it, making it less desirable. This truth of human nature is why people joke about leaving junked furniture on the curb with a sign on it saying "$20" to con someone into taking it away.
I think there's a truth to this argument. By giving away the product for free, you don't create a sense of investment in the player. There's no feeling of exclusivity, of being in a club. Also, it just seems bad from a game mechanics point of view. If I can pay extra to have the biggest sword on the battlefield, I'm essentially paying to win.

It's like the collectible card game Magic, if you can afford to buy more packs of cards than your opponent, you are more likely to have better cards and win more often. You remove any sense of progress, that idea of "hey, if I persist at this game, one day I too will have the Magic Sword of Unending Strength". In a free-to-play world all you're left with is, "ah shucks, I'll just pay the 99 cents so I can have the same sword." Doesn't sound like much fun.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Zrbo Reviews: Fez (Fish, 2012)

Earlier this year the film The Artist arrived in theaters and was met with critical praise. Set in black-and-white, The Artist deftly managed to capture the feeling of early movies of the Hollywood silver screen. What made it a success is debatable, but one thing it did so well was to capture the essence of old black-and-white films. The Artist was not meant as a send-up or parody, but rather as an ode to films of yore. In our modern world drenched in irony and knowing winks, The Artist possessed a magical quality in that the participants involved took the subject seriously. It wasn't just a matter of the movie being in black-and-white while the characters walked around gently mocking our perceptions of these classic films. Instead, The Artist took its source material in earnest, treating it not as send-up but as an ode, creating what felt like a long buried treasure from the golden age of film.

Recently I finished playing through the game Fez. As I was playing through I had many of the same thoughts I had had as when I watched The Artist. Here was a game that managed to capture that feeling I had when I was young and playing early Nintendo games for the first time, those whimsical creations that required my own imagination to fill in the gaps.

In short, Fez is The Artist of videogames.

Fez is the creation of one Phil Fish. Five years in the making, Phil Fish slaved away at making his idea a reality. During this long time in development Fish would show the game at various game-industry gatherings, with the game garnering intense interest, even picking up a few awards before it was even completed. Phil Fish's story, and the creation of Fez itself, is chronicled in the documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, a movie I've yet to see but one that's also already won several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (I honestly have no clue how prestigious this award is or isn't, mind you). This film also chronicles Jonathan Blow, creator of critically acclaimed Braid (that I despised if you remember).

While The Artist presents itself in black-and-white, with no talking and only musical accompaniment to back it up, Fez accomplishes the same thing, only in the context of videogames. It's presented in a quasi-looking 8-bit world, giving it the look of an authentic early Nintendo game from the 1980s. Featuring a delicious soundtrack that hearkens back to games of the same era (we'll get back to the soundtrack later), pick up and play Fez and you'll feel like you stumbled across some old game that you never had the chance to play when you were younger.

Phil Fish has really managed to capture that feeling of what games felt like back in the golden age of Nintendo. There's really something magical going on here, and it's done in a completely non-ironic way. As most of us are aware, irony is in vogue, and recently released games that have attempted to capture the feeling of games of yore have accomplished this by drowning themselves in irony. Take 2009s 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game I rather enjoyed. It too featured a retro 8-bit aesthetic and played like the original Legend of Zelda. The thing is, Game Heroes was insistent on making the player aware of these similarities by constantly making fun of a variety of cliches from games of the time period, such as by mocking the often poorly translated wording of old Nintendo games (such as the infamous "I am Error"). The irony was even imbued in the concept of the game itself, with the world of Game Heroes being composed entirely of pixelated blocks and cubes. While the game was quite fun, it was desperate in its constant winking to the player, wanting the player to "get" its references.

Fez on the other hand, divorces itself from irony almost completely. This is a game that looks and feels like it came out of 1987. As I was playing it, I was amazed at just how much it took me back to my childhood. It captures that feeling of having to use your imagination to fill in the gaps, to construct your own narrative as to what this world is and what's going on. It's a nearly impossible feeling to describe. The feeling is akin to not just the memory of playing tag or hide-and-go seek, but to that actual physical experience of joy I had back when I did. It's a superb accomplishment that can be attributed to its graphical look and sense of place, its music, and, as I mentioned before, something deeper going on in the game itself.

That "something deeper" is in the gameplay itself. In Fez you play as Gomez, a small little marshmallowy looking figure who acquires the titular fez hat, allowing him to shift the perspective of the world at will. Though the game looks like a classic two dimensional platformer, such as Super Mario Bros., the entire perspective of the world can be shifted 90 degrees on an axis at will. This not only means all objects have four sides, but the perspective of the object itself counts. It's not just what the object is, but in how it's perceived upon a two-dimensional plane, an M.C. Escher painting made into game form. Really, the only way to properly describe this is to show some gameplay:

The understanding of how perspective works in this game is key, and can take a bit of getting used to, not unlike understanding how portals work the first time playing Portal. This allows the game to offer interesting puzzles. As the game progresses they get more and more clever.

But there's even more going on here (cue Inception: "We need to go deeper"). Phil Fish has imbued a second layer of puzzles that are not necessary for completing the game, but that provide a whole new perspective on the game itself. It's hard to go into detail without ruining the game, but it would seem Fish has taken several cues from modern day Alternate Reality Games (ARG), where some of the gameplay extends beyond the screen. Go deep enough and Fez can really begin to tax your brain, requiring serious brainpower to decode its clues. These clues not only provide more puzzles, but provide a deeper backstory to what otherwise looks like a shallow game universe (not unlike TV's Lost: did you ever want to know what The Numbers meant? Hopefully you were paying attention to Lost's ARG). Phil Fish even manages to throw in a few Hideo Kojima-like mind benders, such as early on when the game appears to crash. This is the first game in ages where I actually busted out a pen and paper to make notes that looked something not unlike John Nash's scrawls in A Beautiful Mind. Seriously, there's an entire alphabet I've yet to decipher.

The other aspect that makes the game so wonderful is the music. Performed by a group called Disasterpeace, the music and the game come together exceptionally, pairing with the game in a superbly delightful way (listen to it here). At times there's a certain lazy daydream quality to the music. The A.V. Club's new Gameological society described Fez as "M.C. Escher with Vangelis on Keyboards". Each track fits perfectly with the in-game location in which it appears.  Tracks such as Compass and Beacon have that daydream quality I mentioned, fitting as they both play during the sunny seaside locales, while the song Puzzle, with its slightly ominous edge, arrives as you being to unwrap the game's mysteries. The forest song Nature is perhaps the best constructed song, starting off sounding like drops of dew falling from leaves, almost meditative like, the dew drop sound slowly builds into a musical rainstorm. Finally, the track Majesty appears in the game as you finally open the last door (or is it?) and discover a truly magical place. Oh, and remember how I said some of the secrets were hidden outside of the game? Apparently if you run the soundtrack through a spectrogram you can find even more clues. Like I said, Fez has many secrets.

Playing Fez is like taking a trip back through time. A time before games had to be edgy or ironic, before big budgets and realistic looking action were the norm. Back when a game could inspire wonder and excitement with just a few colorful character sprites and a memorable 8-bit tune. Fez manages to capture that feeling of what it was like to play games before the Internet, when you had to talk to the other kids at the schoolyard to know which bush you needed to burn in the Legend of Zelda to find the secret passageway. It's those little things, like having to take pen and paper notes, relying on word of mouth to get secrets around, having to go outside of the game to retrieve clues (akin to the note that came with the game StarTropics that you had to douse in water to reveal the secret code) that bring me back to that feeling of being a kid playing the Nintendo in my bedroom. There's that wonderful music, perfectly fitting for each game locale, and providing spot-on accompaniment for such a compelling world. Finally there's those digital sunsets, watching in awe as the game world transitions from day to night and back again.

It's hard to imagine another indie game coming out this year that would top my feelings for Fez, expect to see it on my game of the year list come December. Currently the game is only available for the Xbox 360, but if and when it comes to PC I'll make sure to give word.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Zrbo's Favorite Big Games of 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

When Skyrim was released last year on 11/11/11 I somehow didn't realize how much it would take over my gaming life. Though I had sunk 100+ hours into its predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I somehow didn't foresee that I would get just as sucked into this game space.

What Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls series in general does so well is provide a richly detailed world to explore. One can lose themselves for hours just exploring the various countrysides and landscapes. While Oblivion had a more generic Tolkein fantasy aesthetic going for it, with it's green forests, rolling hills, and meandering streams, Skyrim takes its cues from a more Nordic influence. Taking place in the far North of its world, Skyrim offers tall rugged mountains, pine forests covered in snow, people clad in animal skins, the northern ocean shore being essentially an ice shelf. Sharing a similar cold, brutal aesthetic with the currently popular Game of Thrones universe, it seems this is currently the new popular look for fantasy.

Skyrim's world offers a great place to just explore at your whim. Around every corner there's always a new cave, waterfall, stone keep, or village waiting to be discovered. The Elder Scrolls games provide me with a feeling of being a kid like no other game I know. As a kid I used to run around the hills behind my house with some friends. These hills provided not only a great view of the ocean, but loads of interesting geography. There were the hills themselves with wandering cows and a line of trees at the top that seemed so far away, while down in the ravine was the creepy forest that turned into a muddy bog. There was even a secret path through there where someone had layed down a few boards over the muddy water. One time we found a little encampment back in the hills, maybe some homeless people, who knows.

Playing Skyrim reminds me of all these experiences, of just being a kid and exploring the world around me. In an interview game designer Cliff Bleszinksi of Gears of War fame said that Skryim "renewed his sense of nostalgia associated with being in the woods and never knowing what was around the corner. They tie back to his childhood... the most primal of feelings." I couldn't agree more.

Portal 2

The sequel to 2007's amazing, award winning Portal, this sequel had a lot to live up to. The first game was essentially a bonus that came bundled with Half Life 2, but ended up becoming just as big a success. Lasting just over two hours, short enough to be played in one afternoon, Portal provided a physics puzzler combined with a satirical take on lab testing as the player awoke in an elaborate testing facility being guided by the murderous HAL-like "GlaDOS" (Generic Lifelike Disc Operating System). The game was a huge success, helped in part by it's meme-worthy phrase "The cake is a lie" and the amazing end-credits song "Still Alive" sung by GlaDOS herself.

Like I said, Portal 2 had big expectations to live up to, and it mostly succeeded. Now a full fledged game spanning 10 or more hours, Portal 2 not only expands on the depth of its puzzles, but also greatly expands the world of its testing facility by introducing the player to the CEO of the facility Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons) and the quirky A.I. pal Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant) as you are guided through the underbelly of the facility.

It largely works, though sometimes the game guides you through the puzzles more than it should. The addition of two-player co-op, with some really ingenious puzzles, is really well done. But the game doesn't quite have the same magic as its predecessor. I think I'll let Justin McElroy (now of The Verge) explain it:

"Portal 2 is outstanding, really, a top-to-bottom success from one of our best developers, and 90 percent of me is completely delighted I got to take the journey. But in the process of falling in love with Portal 2, I lost something kind of magical about Portal 1.

The first Portal wasn't just a great game, it was one that knew when to make its exit, knew how to leave me pining for a future so great that no reality could match up.

It was, in short, a crush."


Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I really wanted to like this game. It did some things well. It captures the feeling of a cyberpunk/Blade Runner future with its neon-hued aesthetics, the core gameplay was fine, and I still think the soundtrack is amazing.

At the end of the day though, it just didn't grab me, and I think I know why. The game began by envisioning a near-future where cybernetics have started to become commonplace. This leads to the interesting ethical dilemma between the haves and the have-nots. If Joe Shmoe can get a cybernetic arm and double his job output, then how is the non-cyber Jane Shmoe supposed to compete? The game raises this neat philisophical dilemma... and then just doesn't do much with it. It's just window dressing. I kept waiting for the game to get back to that question, but it never really did. Oh, and the ending was eerily similar to that of Metal Gear Solid 4.

Gears of War 3 
The gameplay was great, the best of the series. What I didn't like was that with the addition of four players (up from two) the fights devolved into a shooting gallery. The first two games limited you to main character Marcus Fenix (voiced by John DiMaggio, AKA Bender from Futurama) and his buddy Dom. This allowed great gameplay sequences where one player layed down cover while the other moved in and flanked the enemy. Each battle felt like real teamwork. Expanding the cast to four characters watered down the strategy and most fights just became a shooting gallery.

Then there's the ending which not only includes the biggest damn Maguffin of all time, but also ruthlessly denies the player ANY explanation for all the questions they've been wondering. Let me just tell you what happens *spoilers - not like it really matters*: You ignite the magical Maguffin bomb that will kill all the bad guys but leave all the good guys alive (huh?) and then the character who's going to finally explain all those questions you have has a scene that goes like this: "Let me tell you the secret, the secret is... eerk" *drops dead*. Thanks for nothing Cliff Bleszinksi.

Year as a whole:
I spent a good deal of the year going through backlog or playing through games a second time. I also spent a lot of time playing smaller indie games, like Terraria, Bastion, and games from the Pixeljunk series. The best game I played this year by far was Demon's Souls, which came out in 2009, but one that I showered with praise.

This year I'm most hyped for Halo 4, Borderlands 2, and perhaps most of all Bioshock: Infinite (with perhaps the coolest looking demo I've ever seen).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Zrbo's Favorite Small Games of 2011

Yes, I realize it's already March, but I still haven't gotten around to talking about my favorite games of 2011. Since there's so many good ones I want to talk about I've decided to split my favorites into two groups: the small games (usually by an 'indie' developer) and the big AAA titles (usually by large gaming studios). The following are my favorite small games of 2011.

Terraria (Re-Logic game studio)
This is a fantastic little game I bought during a Steam sale for $2.50, and it was well worth 10x that much. Have you heard of Minecraft? Well, Terraria is like a 2-D version of Minecraft, though that doesn't quite do it enough justice. Terraria is part of this new movement of crafting games, basically games in which you are given a large world to run around in in which you create (or craft, if you will) items, weapons, and buildings out of various materials found in the world. You start off in a randomly generated world with only an axe for chopping wood and a pickaxe for mining brick, and from there, well, you can do anything you want. You probably want to begin by chopping down trees to build a house so you can survive the denizens which come out during the night. From there you'll want to start mining underground to get materials to upgrade your pickaxe, and then explore a little bit further to find some new items, then explore a little bit farther to see what's over that nearby hill, then return and make your house bigger, then talk to that NPC who moved into your house, then start spelunking into the depths below... and around this time you realize you've become addicted to this little gem of a game.

For a solid month I was addicted to my little Terraria world. What makes it work are the mild RPG elements they've added in, so there's always some newer, better armor or weapon that you can find or craft if you play just a little longer. The art style, with it's retro-16 bit sprite characters, combined with the quirky music, really makes the game shine. It's really amazing to look around online to see some of the structures people have built, which must have taken days, if not weeks, to complete (after spending hours just to construct my rinky-dink house I realize how much incredible effort must go into these). Check out some of these creations here. A great little game all around.

Bastion (Supergiant Games)

Bastion is the main reason this post got held up, I picked it up over Christmas but just recently got around to finishing it. The first game from Supergiant Games studio (developed by my old favorite Gamespot editor-in-chief Greg Kasavin), Bastion has already walked away with a slew of game awards, and it's easy to see why.

The game tells the story of 'the Kid' who wanders a sort of post-cataclysmic world looking for meaning. There are three points which make the game shine: the outstanding art design, the music, and most importantly, the narrator. The entire game is narrated, every action you do, every thing you see, it's all being narrated as if this were a story being told, and the narrator is brilliant. He sounds like an aging black man from Louisiana, speaking with a mild drawl. Combined with the hand drawn world and the way the land "rises up" as you walk around, Supergiant Games created something really special here. The best way to describe it is to show it, so watch the trailer here and some gameplay here to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

I mentioned the music, which is also worth checking out. The musical score itself is neat, with many of the tunes combining twangy acoustic guitars with electro-clash (there's a great article here with some snippets worth listening to), but what really takes the cake are the songs "Build that Wall (Zia's theme)", "Mother, I'm Here (Zulf's theme)", and "Setting Sail (Coming Home)" which is a fantastic mashup of those first two songs and which even brought a tear to my eye as it played over the final credits. This is a must play game (and like Terraria is also available on Steam for those PC players out there).

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (Namco Bandai)

Could the best small game of 2011 be a successor to a thirty-plus year old ur-videogame? It just may be. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, a follow up to 2007's Pac-Man Championship Edition, is truly a marvel, a perfect example of how to update an aging concept and make it completely fresh. In this version of the iconic franchise, Pac-Man roams the board gobbling pellets as usual, but this time there are many, many ghosts on the board, and they're all asleep. As Pac-Man goes by each sleeping ghost, those ghosts wake up and begin pursuing Pac-Man. You can keep accruing a following of ghosts, I've had more than a hundred in one game, before eating the big yellow pellet and turning around and eating all those delicious purple ghosts. It's so terribly satisfying.

What makes the game work is the way the board keeps changing. Whenever you've cleared one side of the board (left or right) a bit of fruit appears on the other side. Eating this fruit causes the cleared side to 'warp' and change into a new configuration, complete with new ghosts and pellets. Each successive transformation causes the speed to ratchet up a notch, which can eventually lead to Pac-Man moving faster than you've ever seen him move before (at top speed it's ludicrously fast). To top if off, they've given Pac-Man some electro/club music accompaniment which gives the whole game a terrific sense of style. Combined with a flashy Tron-like color saturation and it feels like you're playing Pac-Man in some exclusive nightclub.

As with Bastion, the best way to highlight how the game works is to watch some gameplay video (skip to late in the video to see how stupidly fast it gets too). The game gives you a smorgasbord of different levels/maps to play on and a ton of different game types, all or which are constantly being doled out to the player as they complete levels, thus giving the game a nearly endless amount of replayability. While the game technically came out in 2010 I didn't have the chance to play it until last summer. Regardless, it just may be my favorite small game of 2011 (though Bastion is a very close second).

That's it! Stay tuned as I'll be putting up my list of favorite big games sometime soon.