Sunday, September 1, 2013

Play it Again, Zrbo: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

You may recall that back in 2009 I wrote a fairly long review of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Recently I played through the game again and after re-reading my review I still have many of the same thoughts. It's still a masterpiece - I would go ahead and call it the most ambitious game ever made - but that doesn't mean it's the best or even most enjoyable game. I'd describe it more as really interesting.

Game director/producer/writer Hideo Kojima is still in desperate need of an editor. I spoke in my review of the outrageously long cinematic cutscenes that the player has the... um.. delight of getting to watch. It's true that part of watching these scenes are what gives the game it's charm, and yes, Kojima at least occasionally gives you something to do during these cinematic sequences (such as being able to view a flashback from a previous MGS game, or being able to take over a video camera), but it doesn't stop them from being occasionally interminable. I realized how quickly I got tired of Drebin, the arms dealer who acts somewhat like the Cheshire Cat (and who looks suspiciously like Wesley Snipes). Each time you defeat one of the game's bosses, Drebin calls up to deliver some overly long monologue on how the boss got the way she was and what she represented. Each story is overly detailed and long winded. They're a total bore and the explanations are frankly, just kind of silly. Here's one if you really feel like watching.

Drebin's back... sigh

Kojima's tendency for overly long and unnecessary explanations was most notable to me during the final movie-length cinematic that follows after you beat the game. For the entire game your character, Solid Snake, has been trying to figure out what the villain's big plan is. It's a completely over-complicated, overwrought mess that I won't go into here. By the end Snake's figured it all out, you watch about a full hour long cinematic that includes all the various characters, with each character given plenty of time to have their piece and say goodbye and then the credits finally appear to roll... Then the game drops a surprise by cutting to yet another cinematic, and brings back a character who at this point should be completely, irrevocably dead, who then proceeds to explain to you yet a whole other very different explanation of the events that just transpired during the game. My mind was so fatigued with explanations by that point that I barely followed anything this character was saying, I just wanted the game to be over. Someone has uploaded the entire shebang to Youtube, which you can watch here (skip to minute 57 to get to the fake credits).

I think part of the problem here lies with the fact that for all intents and purposes, Metal Gear Solid 4 was supposed to be the grand finale to the series, and since Kojima didn't plan on coming back to these characters, he wanted to make sure that each one of them got to say something and that anything that needed to be said was said.

And, inevitably, for whatever reason (money? fame? boredom?) Kojima has now gone ahead and announced Metal Gear Solid 5. Of interest is that instead of keeping long time voice actor David Hayter as the voice of Snake, Kojima has brought on board Keifer Sutherlund as the new voice. Now, Kojima is notorious with playing mind games with his fan base (MGS 2 is basically just one big mind fuck), and I know myself and a few others believe that this is essentially all a long con and that David Hayter will be there in some form or another.

So that's it. Metal Gear Solid 4 is an extraordinary game. The cutting edge graphics have been surpassed by this point, it's funny how they actually look a little dated to me now. The soundtrack is still phenomenal, but I went through that in my original review. I'll leave you with the opening cinematic of the game, with Snake's now infamous monologue (at least among gamers) on how war has changed, set to the beautiful "Love Theme":

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Play It Again, Zrbo: Half Life 2

There's very few other games I would want to kick off this new series with other than Half Life 2. The game is not only widely considered one of the greatest games of the past decade, it's absolutely a contender for the best first person shooter of all time. I recently picked it up again after playing through other, lesser shooters (Bioshock Infinite *cough*) because I was yearning for a well constructed game. It did not disappoint.

Playing through Half Life 2 again I was reminded of just how much game-makers Valve got things just right. Nearly every single aspect of the game is top notch. The graphics, while far from cutting edge, are more than serviceable and hold up well for a nearly nine year old game. The level design and pacing couldn't be much better (though the final quarter drags just ever so slightly), and the character development, in a game in which the main protagonist is completely silent, is extremely well done. This playthrough I was especially impressed with the quality of the voice acting, something even most AAA titles don't get right.

If you'll recall from my old post on the opening of Half Life 2, the game finds you once again in the shoes of MIT physicist Gordon Freeman. Just like in the original Half Life, the game takes place entirely in the first person perspective, never cutting to a cinematic or pulling control away from the player. While the concept of the silent protagonist has become a conceit in modern gaming, supposedly making the player feel more "immersed" in the game world, Valve not only nails it here, but essentially sets the bar, something no other first person shooter I've played has yet to surpass.

As I mentioned, I was really taken away with the voice acting this time around. Everybody just nails it, from the suited G-Man in his completely bizarre stilted intonation (reminding me a bit of the backwards talking segments from Twin Peaks), to Doctor Kleiner's bumbling scientist in a lab coat. But I was especially impressed this go around with two voices in particular.

Dr. Breen welcomes you to City 17

The first is the voice of the main antagonist, Dr. Breen. Looking somewhat like Dennis Hopper in a turtleneck, Breen delivers several monologues throughout the game that are just delivered brilliantly. A P├ętain-like figure urging you to sympathize with the occupying Combine, Dr. Breen can be heard several times throughout the game speaking on all sorts of matters. Upon arriving in the dystopic City 17, the player is greeted with a message from Dr. Breen welcoming them to the city. I love the ever so slight weariness to his words, as if you can tell that deep inside he wishes it didn't have to be this way either. Listen to the opening speech here (the first 45 seconds or so, though I urge you to stick around and listen to the second speech as well, which begins immediately after). He pulls it off perfectly, and I especially love that little pause he often gives before referring to the alien Combine as "our benefactors". Later on in the game, in an increasingly agitated set of speeches (beginning at 5:03), he chastises the Combine forces for being unable to capture Gordon Freeman. You can just hear the exasperated frustration in his voice as he refers to Freeman as "an ordinary man". Kudos to the late Robert Culp for such a terrific performance.

The other great voice is that of Ellen McLain. Known better as the voice of the HAL-like GlaDOS from the Portal games (and as a voice in the new Pacific Rim film), McLain voices what's generally referred to as the Overwatch Voice. A female voice heard over the radio of the masked "Civil Protection" units that Gordon Freeman regularly encounters, the Overwatch Voice is this eerie police radio dispatch voice mixed with words that describe human activities as if they were viral outbreaks, all delivered in a disjointed, completely flat, clinical tone. The Half Life wiki describes it as "medically-inspired Newspeak to describe resistance activity in the context of a bacterial infection and treatment". The Wiki also says the voice is inspired from various films such as an announcer in the film version of 1984 and Farenheit 451. Whatever the influence, it's really well done, you can listen to clips here.

The infamous bridge crossing

The game as a whole has a great sense of pacing and place. Short physics-based puzzles are often placed between enemy encounters, lending a sense of relief while giving the player something to do. Then there's all the great locations the game takes you to. Any of these places will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's played the game: the red barn, the horror-tinged Ravenholm, the bridge crossing (possibly my favorite sequence in the entire game), the invasion of Nova Prospekt on the beach during sunset, the interior of the Citadel. And those areas further highlight the brilliant structure of the entire game itself. For about two thirds of the game you are fleeing the Combine, trying to put distance between you and your pursuers, and then without ever drawing attention to it, you find yourself  invading them. It's really well done. I do have to say however that near the end when you're fighting through the streets of City 17 that I found the game to drag ever so slightly and was relieved when I finally made it to those Citadel walls.

Half Life 2 continues on in episodes 1 and 2, an attempt at "episodic gaming" that didn't quite work out as Valve planned. Both episodes continue the strong level design and character development, and the ending of episode 2 is so sudden and shocking that it leaves the player somewhat dazed (and terribly sad), but to this date we're still awaiting the resolution in a fabled Half Life 3 (which Valve won't acknowledge it's something they're even working on). We've had our Star Wars and our Empire Strikes Back, now we need the resolution.

Half Life 2 is a great game. It's definitely smart, well-paced, and has characters that you really care about. I would even recommend it those who aren't normally drawn to gaming. Now just give us Half Life 3, Valve... please??

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Just One More Time, Play It Again, Zrbo

Welcome to my new series. When playing videogames I often play through a game the first time to experience the game and get a feel for its mechanics. Sometime later, usually about a year or so, I like to go back to that game and play through it again. Just like with films, I find that often you can get more out of a game the second time through. You notice the foreshadowing, you see the hints, you admire the characters and story just a little more. You may notice some detail or utilize a game mechanic that you didn't get a chance to the first time around. I find that the second playthrough is important in solidifying an opinion.

In Play It Again, Zrbo I'll be doing just that. Playing a game a second (or even third or more) time, seeing if it holds up, and if I admire it any more or less. So put on a white jacket and bow tie, light a cigar, and join me as I play it again.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Zrbo Reviews: BioShock Infinite (Levine, 2013)

Let's get it out of the way up front: BioShock Infinite is a flawed masterpiece. Arriving with enormous hype, the game was meant to be creative director Ken Levine's crowning achievement. Expanding and iterating on 2007's BioShock, BioShock Infinite was destined to tell a grand story. Set in 1912, Infinite promised to explore everything from American Exceptionalism to turn of the century Christian revivalism. Where BioShock showed the disaster in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Infinite promised it would have something to say about America's past. Booting up the game for the first time I was excited to see how these themes would play out, to see how Levine would use the BioShock template to explore issues rarely addressed in gaming. Instead I found a game that utilizes those issues as little more than window dressing, delivering serviceable game at best. At least he bothered to include an absolutely amazing ending.

Set in an alternate universe version of 1912, you play as Booker DeWitt. Deep in some gambling debts, he's enlisted to go to the flying city of Columbia to retrieve a certain girl. "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt" you are told over and over again.

Arriving in the secessionist flying city of Columbia, the player is treated to an idealized version of turn of the century American life. Columbia is obsessed with America to the extreme, with the founding fathers seen as saints, and George Washington as the second coming of Christ. The entire city is the plan of self proclaimed prophet Zachary Comstock. As you explore the city, and eventually find the girl, you come to witness that all is not as bright and cheerful as first appears. There's dark undercurrents to this white-washed version of America.

But back to the girl. Her name is Elizabeth, and curiously she's kept apart from the rest of the citizens of Columbia, locked in a tower. Ken Levine spent years developing her character, and Courtnee Draper gives a great performance. At times Elizabeth veers dangerously close to becoming a Disney Princess, but I'll at least give it to Levine that she never quite crosses that line. However, I feel there's a lot more they could have done with her. Though we get to know her fairly well, there's times where I just wanted Booker to ask her some basic questions, like, what are your feelings about being a locked in a tower for your entire life? Elizabeth is also gifted with a strange power, able to open rifts in space-time, often resulting in glimpses of a strange future, one where movie theaters are showing something called Revenge of the Jedi and where automobiles drive around playing strangely familiar music.

After finding Elizabeth most of the rest of the game involves Booker and her trying to escape Columbia. While the opening of the game is spectacular as you are introduced to this idealized America floating in the sky, the middle of the game suffers. Basically you end up running around Columbia, running into various characters and struggles, but all in all not much really seems to happen. All of these amazing ideas are right there for exploration, from America's treatment of Native Americans, to slavery, to Reconstruction, to religious zealotry... and the game does very little with it all. To tell the truth I was fairly bored. The entire middle 50% of the game almost feels like filler. It's not until about three quarters of the way through do things pick up again.
Almost a Disney Princess... almost.

But when they do, oh boy do things get interesting. I really don't want to ruin anything here because the ending is wonderfully executed. I didn't quite believe the game reviewers when they said the last 30 minutes were some of the most extraordinary they've experienced in modern gaming, but I will admit that my jaw hit the floor, accompanied by a huge grin on my face when I finally got there. When the credits rolled I had to rush to the Internet to discuss the ending with others. It's like the first time you saw Inception or the Sixth Sense where you leave the theater discussing with others all the different layers of dreams, whether Leo was still in a dream at the end, and wow, so I guess Bruce Willis was ghost the whole time! So at least there was some pretty good payoff at the end, but it was a bit of a slog to get there.

Ken Levine certainly drew upon a slew of popular influences when crafting Infinite. The opening scene at the lighthouse practically screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the floating city of Columbia seems influenced in part by Jules Verne and cloud city from The Empire Strikes Back. Ken Levine has cited 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis as an inspiration, drawing upon it's classic Americana look.

Then there's the more curious influences. Throughout the game the player comes across moments where familiar yet out-of-place for the era songs can be heard, but all done in a very unusual style. Everything from a pipe organ version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, REM's Shiny Happy People, to Fortunate Son. What makes these musical pieces all the more interesting is that they're not inserted into the game Baz Luhrmann style, unnecessarily crammed into the game to get us to smirk fondly. Instead the reasoning behind their placement is explained through plot and makes surprisingly sense once you understand what's going on. Upon completion of the game one realizes just how much the lyrics speak to the characters and the story. Girls Just Want to Have Fun takes on a tragic meaning, while The Beach Boys' God Only Knows becomes a summation of the entire game. It's actually rather ingenious once you've played through the entire game.

So here we are. What do I think of the game? I'm divided. One of the first pieces I read upon completion was this bit by Daniel Golding and I instantly connected. Where was the nuance, where was the moral dilemma? I'll just let Mr. Golding speak:
In taking the game seriously, I want to be as clear as possible: BioShock Infinite uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever. Worse, it uses racism and real events in an incredibly superficial way—BioShock Infinite seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’ as a barrier to point to and claim importance. BioShock Infinite presents a veneer of intelligence—with wholly unexplored and mystifying asides to complicated concepts like Manifest Destiny and the New Eden—without ever following through. Without any deeper exploration of these ideas, BioShock Infinite’s use of American history and the Columbian Exposition is illusory, and already puts the lie to the claim that by engaging with these themes, BioShock Infinite is the place to find substance in mainstream videogames.
Over at the A.V. Club's Gameological Society, John Teti points out the false equivalence present in the game's message:
Levine sets up a conflict between American exceptionalism and rabble-rousing populism, but he punts by casting practically every prominent figure in Columbian politics as an irredeemable asshole... The takeaway is that anyone who seeks power is a scoundrel... The intellectual dodge of calling everyone a loser excuses Infinite from having a meaningful political point of view.
It's true, the game, like it's predecessor, promises to show us the danger in following a line of thinking too far, in the original BioShock it was Objectivism, here it's more or less American Exceptionalism, but unlike in that first game, the game leaves the player with nothing to takeaway except "they were all bad people". Levine seems unwilling to take a stand, and the game suffers for it.

However, I just can't get over that ending. It was fairly brilliant, and managed to wipe away most of the bad taste the rest of the game left in my mouth. If The Usual Suspects had been a poorly directed movie but still included the same twist ending, you'd probably think "damn that was a boring movie, but wow, who woulda thunk Kaiser Soze was him??" I was prepared to give the game a fairly low rating, but the ending actually turned me around somewhat. If anything, now that I know the twist, I'd like to play through it again so that I can enjoy all the hints and foreshadowing. Until then, I'll leave you with my score.

4/5 Zrbo points

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Music of Bioshock Infinite

I recently completed playing Bioshock Infinite, the long awaited successor to 2007's Bioshock, regarded as one of this generation's gaming masterpieces. There's a lot to say about Bioshock Infinite, which I'll get to in a proper review. For now you just need to know that the game takes place in 1912, in the flying city of Columbia.

But everything's not quite what it seems in this turn of the century steampunk wonderland. As you make your way around Columbia you might overhear a little music playing in the background, perhaps in a shop, or coming from someone's record player in their home. If you stop and listen you'll notice there's something familiar about this music. That song playing as you stroll down a Coney Island-like boardwalk... is that? Yes, it is indeed my friend. Let's take a listen perhaps some of the most strangest renditions of songs you assuredly know.

Lou Albano playing the pipe organ?

Tears in the key of Fears?

It ain't me who turned this into a negro spiritual.

Ed Cobb in a skimmer hat?

And perhaps the most impressive...

I'll try to get my review up soon.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 2)

Pardon me, it took a bit longer to get through some of these games than I anticipated. Well, really, that's not entirely true. My gaming life has been taken over by another game recently, but I'll address that one soon enough in a separate post. Here's a link to part one if you wish to go back and take a look. For now let's get back to the other small games of 2012 that I played:

Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment)

Mark of the Ninja is a game of stealth. It borrows heavily from other stealth games while implementing clear visual mechanics to create a remarkably good game. You play the role of a ninja, with the story told through beautifully animated cutscenes. As you traverse through the world on your way to various objectives (sometimes it's to secure an object, other times an assassination) you rely on stealth to get accomplish your goals. What makes the game work so well is that the mechanics are implemented so well. Each patrolling guardsman has a vision cone (just like in the original Metal Gear Solid) so you know exactly how far he can see, each footstep you take emits a ring of sound so you know exactly how loud you are, and each light shows you exactly whether you are able to be seen or if you are tucked safely in the shadows. The game gives you a whole arsenal of weapons and tricks that encourages multiple playthroughs. Want to get through without ever being detected? Utilize your distraction items. Want to be a ruthless murderer? Sneak up on a guard and slit their throat. Mark of the Ninja is a great little game that gets stealth just right. It's available for PC and Xbox 360.

Skrillex Quest (Jason Oda and Skrillex)

Now here's a game out of left field. Skrillex Quest is a free-to-play browser game that's surprisingly good. Your character, "P1", is on a quest to save the world by removing the glitches. You see, the glitches are there because there's dust on the cartridge. The entire game is a great deconstruction/amalgamation of old videogames. With a great 8-bit aesthetic, the game crams so many references it's difficult to keep track of them all. At one point it's straight up the original Legend of Zelda, at times the original Dragon Warrior, then there's a bit of Goonies II (the semi-sequel to the movie that was only ever a videogame), and even some random 80s movie references (I know I caught some Neverending Story dialogue in there).

Designed by Jason Oda, who also did the amazing parody Perfect Strangers game (also free-to-play in your browser) not too long ago, the game is basically a marketing vehicle for dubstep artist Skrillex's latest album (who makes a cameo in boss form near the end). The game is set to the song "Summit", which is actually pretty good. The game only takes about 15 or so minutes to play through. I highly recommend giving the game a whirl, you can find it here.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (Capybara Games)

Now for something similar yet very different. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP uses a similar retro 8-bit look to Skrillex Quest, but instead of an action game, gives us an old fashioned point-and-click adventure. I'm divided on this game. I absolutely loved the visuals - and the music, by Jim Guthrie (who the game seems to want to continually remind you did the music), is really well done.

The way the story and dialogue are delivered are fun as well. The game starts out by having an 8-bit cigar smoking man introduce us to the "experience" we are about to undertake, very much in an homage to Half Life's G-Man or the X-Files' cigarrette smoking man. Then we're off on the adventure, with the dialogue delivered in a sort of ironic self-awareness, employing the royal "we" (sample dialog goes like this: "We continued on our epic quest, though we were feeling hella tired"), and with characters named "dogfella" (a dog) and the lumberjack "logfella". My problem with the game is in the puzzles themselves. Maybe I'm just not skilled in point-and-click adventures but I often had to consort a walkthrough in order to get through the game. It's not that the puzzles themselves were necessarily difficult, it's that their presentation was difficult. Occasionally there appeared to be a puzzle when there really wasn't, thus wasting my time needlessly clicking around when there wasn't anything to be found. What it comes down to is that I really just didn't like the "game" aspect of the game. It's a shame too, because the rest of the experience was really good. It's available for PC and most tablets.

FTL: Faster than Light (Subset Games)

FTL: Faster than Light came out last year, but I didn't pick it up until about a month ago. Sometime last year all my favorite game blogs and reviewers started to gush about this game and its addictive properties. I didn't pay it much mind at the time because of the type of game that it is: a roguelike. If you're unfamiliar with roguelikes, Wikipedia describes them as "a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement". I'm typically not a fan of roguelikes, I find them too hard and not very satisfying as they're typically based around how long you can survive before dying, and not about any sort of plot or character development. I generally prefer my games to have some sort of story. But I decided to pick up FTL when it went on sale on Steam and I've been hooked since.

The premise is that you're piloting a little spacecraft, trying to navigate through space to reach the end and warn your people about some sort of incoming invasion. Rather than dealing with Star Wars-like dogfight combat you instead are in command of all the various subsystems of your little spacecraft. One of the designers said he was inspired by Star Trek where the captain yells out orders like "man the torpedoes, divert power to the main engine, seal the hull breach!" In FTL you're constantly juggling your resources while trying to survive. Every time you "jump" into a new system you are met with a randomized event. Sometimes it's space pirates, sometimes a friendly merchant, sometimes a ship that needs help, sometimes nothing. The randomness of it all is what makes it fun, though occasionally frustrating. I've had a game end in as little as three minutes, I've also had a game go as long as an hour. FTL: Faster than Light is really a great little game and very worth picking up. It's available on Steam/PC for ten bucks.

The Year of the Indie Game
It feels like there's a shift happening in games right now. There's a surge in small indie games and it seems that people are taking notice. After the recent Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco I read several online journalists remark that they could notice a change at the conference, that the small indie games were being taken more seriously than ever before, and that the gulf between small game developers and big AAA title corporate behemoths was becoming much more noticeable. The quality in small games is quite high, with these games often delivering interesting and creative experiences, while the AAA game industry is pushing out the same old stuff (mainly shooters) and suffering for it (the recent "Tomb Raider" sold over 3 million copies but the company behind it is saying the game was a failure - maybe they need to rethink their priorities). Maybe that's why Sony is specifically courting a lot of indie developers for the new Playstation 4 which should be out later this year. While I still dig playing those big budget AAA titles, there's a lot of good competition being offered up by the small guys. Hopefully I've helped you find some good ones.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Here ye, here ye! Steam Sale is about!

I've been proselytizing these videogames to you, dear readers, for years.  Now you have the chance to get some of these games for dirt cheap. As Steam is want to do, it's currently in the midst of its Indie Spring Sale, with most of the following games 50 to 80 percent off.  I won't bother you with any more fuss, here's what's available and a link to my opinion:

To the Moon - $3.99
Terraria - $2.49
Limbo - $3.99
Braid - $3.99

And two games I've played but yet to review:

FTL: Faster than Light - $4.99
Dark Souls (sequel to Demon's Souls, my favorite game of 2009) - $19.99

And as a final note, it was recently announced that Fez, a game I adored, will be coming to Steam/PC sometime in May. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 1)

2012 may not have brought about the apocalypse, but it did produce a slew of excellent small games. So excellent in fact that multiple media outlets have awarded the small games Journey and The Walking Dead game of the year. Journey comes from thatgamecompany, who brought us 2009's Flower. The Walking Dead, based on the comic/TV series, comes from Telltale Games. Unfortunately, I haven't played either (my Playstation 3 broke this summer so I haven't played Journey, and no matter what good words people say about The Walking Dead I'm just not that interested in zombies, even if those zombies are used as a metaphor for the human condition). Instead, I'll discuss here those small games that I did manage to play in 2012.  Ready?

To the Moon (Freebird Games)

To the Moon was a game with a great premise. You play the role of two scientists who have been summoned to a dying man's house. The man has a last wish, he wants to go "to the moon". These scientists have the means that will allow the dying man to accomplish this. Using a fancy machine the scientists are able to enter the dying man's mind and relive his memories, subtly altering them so that the dying man will have the memory of going to the moon. One part Inception, and one part Citizen Kane, the premise and overall idea of To the Moon is brilliant. The game utilizes a retro 16 bit art style, so it looks like an old Final Fantasy game from the 90's. While the gameplay itself isn't very deep- it's basically a point-and-click adventure- the story draws on a lot of emotional strings, from the gentle piano pieces that it uses, to the secrets the two scientists find in the dying man's memories. Even the idea of going "to the moon" may not have meaning it initially appears to.

Unfortunately much of the emotional impact the game is undercut by one of the scientist characters. Nearly every time something poignant happens, he's there to make some sassy or sarcastic comment. It's like watching the end of the movie Titanic with Rose about to say goodbye to Jack forever with the whole theater on the verge of tears when some guy blurts out "Hey buddy why don't you just get on the flotsam with her, ya big dummy!".

I kept thinking that the creators of the game thought up this grand emotional tale but didn't want to be seen as sissies by their guy friends, so they made sure to have a completely annoying and unnecessary character ruin several moments of potentially great emotional impact. Despite this, I guarantee that you will probably find yourself in tears as the final scene plays out.

Fez (Polytron)

I've already discussed my love of Fez and needless to say, I still think it was an absolutely fantastic game. A perfect homage to videogames of the 80's, Fez managed to make me feel like a kid all over again.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Remedy Entertainment)

A semi-sequel to 2010's Alan Wake (which I wrote about), this small downloadable title continues the adventure of the titular author who finds himself trapped in his own nightmares. Breaking free of "the dark place" from the first game, Alan Wake- ahem... wakes up in a semi-real bit of Arizona, having surrendered some of his memory in order to do so. The game tasks Alan with recovering those memories in a style reminiscent of Groundhog Day. While it continues with the same style of gameplay as the original, American Nightmare introduces a real nemesis, an alter-ego version of Alan named Mr. Scratch (whose name, in a small bit of brilliance, is never actually pronounced, with only the sound of a scratched record whenever anyone says his name). Mr. Scratch is an excellent foil to Alan, a womanizing douchebag who knows Alan's plans since he essentially is Alan.

Like the original, the game has excellent voice acting. Alan Wake really does come across as a real life horror novelist stuck in his own story. On top of this, the entire game is taking place inside an episode of "Night Springs" (think Twilight Zone) which is sold well by having the game narrated by a Rod Serling soundalike. While the gameplay itself isn't very challenging, the game has just enough flair and humor to recommend it. You can watch the first few minutes here to get a taste of just how self-aware this game is (for example, I love how the episode of Night Springs is "written by Alan Wake").

That's it for now, as soon as I finish up one last small game I picked up during the holiday Steam sale I'll be back with part 2.