Archive for category 2011

The Psychic Costs of Today’s Gamer

As much as I love gaming, I’ve noticed my buying habits have taken somewhat of a gradual decline.  I’ve become extremely more sensitive to what I’ll spend my money on.  Up until a few years ago, I had a massive collection of video games.  Seriously, I had a closet packed with boxes full of gaming nostalgia.  Each box dedicated to specific system followed by genre sitting in pristine condition.  But today?  Looking at my collection, I estimate about 30 games across all three major platforms.  That’s still a sizable amount or more than your average casual gamer. But it’s nowhere near the pack rat status I had before.  One day I’m sitting on a quintessential library of video games throughout the generations.  But now I’ve scaled back to the bare minimum.  So what the hell happened?  Despite brief stints of unemployment, social / relationship issues, age, and whatnot; that still doesn’t account for the drop-off in my purchasing habits when life is on the up and up.  

A few months back, renowned author, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a piece regarding the NBA lockout: the psychic benefits of owning a sports team. Basically, the gist is that most (NBA) owners derive a greater value / pleasure from owning items (in this case, teams) more than what they’re actually worth from a market valuation standpoint.  The whole notion of psychic benefits is to evaluate the level of stress involved when considering a transaction or facing a dilemma.  It’s the reason why stores offer rebates or attractive discounts on extra accessories when you’re contemplating buying that pricey, new laptop.  It’s the reason companies and recruiters offer lucrative signing (or referral) bonuses when scouting new talent.  All of this is to help alleviate the psychic cost (i.e. stress) of the situation.  Naturally, I began to wonder how this would relate to the gaming industry.  And it seems to apply just as well.

Same cost, Diminishing Value
Video game MSRP’s (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) have remained relatively steady throughout the generations.  However, I do believe that the majority of today’s releases are grossly overpriced given the quality of their content, especially for single player games. Granted, the criteria for what qualifies as a $60 game is debatable in itself. What can’t be disputed is the production quality of a game. Case in point, there’s no way in hell a titles such as Hunted: The Demon Forge, Spider-Man: Edge of Time, or even Thor contain the same level of attention and detail as say, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune or even a lesser known gem, El Shaddai.  But I would be more inclined to buying games if they were released at a more reasonable price point.  The problem I face buying games today is twofold:

  1. I feel like I’m overpaying for a half-baked product (see Homefront)
  2. If there’s a generic multiplayer (MP) mode is tacked on, I feel like I’d only get half the value since I’m not a fan MP modes. This is the main reason why I skipped out on the latest released Call of Duty: MW3 & BattleField 3.

This is where the industry is failing.  So much energy and money is dedicated to hyping up AAA titlesm most of which are similar to each other where many of them fall into familiar territory too easily.  It’s no wonder they turn into massive flops (anyone still even playing Brink or Rage).  To me, it’s not worth wasting money on cookie cutter games I’ve already played for the past decade.  My buying influence is furthered weakened when a generic multiplayer mode is needlessly shoehorned in (see Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, etc).  I’d rather play something that’s a bit more fresh (or shorter). As such, the psychic benefits I used to gain from most games has gradually diminished as a result of all of this.

Lately I’ve come to enjoy bargain bin titles more than many mainstream hits.  They’re short (5-10 hours), relatively simple to pickup and play, and they’re just as fun.  There’s this flawed conception that “cheap” games are bad games.  This is an area where the industry could really make a bigger impact.  These smaller, single player games could yield a larger return with a few tweaks the current model.  Think about it: cheaper production costs would allow developers to explore new ideas / gimmicks in smaller samplings instead of hedging their bets on expensive blockbusters.  Furthermore, it’d free up more capital to actually to market these “standard” titles. Plus, marketing a base of “standard” titles would allow people to move on to other games faster.  It would be even more awesome if these games were initially released digitally, not 3-6 months later when they’re well forgotten. Not to mention, more resources could be delegated to promoting commercially viable games from independent developers. This is another area that the industry continues to fail capitalizing on.  This year alone I’ve spent a fair amount of money and time playing indie titles that could make a commercial impact had the right parties taken notice. I’m not saying the large, AAA hits need to go away.  We still need those; I love those!  But we also need to broaden our focus and recognize what the community outside the majors have to offer.

Peter Pan No More…
Yep, I’m getting older.  The allure of having a mountain of games, midnight game releases, and trumped-up special edition releases just aren’t worth the hassle (or money) as I get older.  I’ll always be a nerdy gamer and I’m glad to help the culture evolve.  But as mentioned above, my priorities are shifting as I slowly become an adult.  There’s a silver lining to be found here in that gaming has transformed from being a mere “kid’s hobby” to a hobby people of all ages enjoy (whether they want to admit it or not) or even productivity applications (see Gamifcation).

I’m pretty confident I’m not alone in sentiments. But the gaming landscape is changing and expanding at an incredible rate.  Casual & mobile games are taking off and console gaming is starting to shrink sales wise.  If the industry wants to stay competitive and retain & grow market demographics, it will need to adjust their brand offerings & pricing model accordingly.  Soon enough you’ll find more gamers such as myself skipping out on even more games and transitioning to more suitable options.

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2011: The Year of Underperformers & Neglect

As 2011 wraps up, let’s take this moment to take a look at the plethora of games to come out this year.  How many of those games really jumped out and grabbed you?  This year was rife with mediocre titles that quickly feel to the way side.  And that’s fine, not every game needs to be a AAA smash hit.  The problem though is that a majority of 2011’s AAA titles were flash-in-the-pain hits that didn’t really merit their hype.  The disappointment spread even further with the lack of pereipheral hits / supports.  Anyone care for Rise of  Nightmares?  What was the last Nintendo Wii title  anyone played before Zelda Skyward Sword came along?  Maybe publishers were playing it safe due to the global economic downturn, who knows.  That aside, this year did yield a few gems.  Since I’m not an industry insider, my gaming opportunities are limited but I’ve played more than my fair share of titles.  So let’s get to it.  


Best Game of the Year:

  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: – I kind of waffled on this one.  Personally, I would have put this as the number one game of the year due to it’s tight succinct story and fully fleshed-out multi-player mode.  But decide again it considering how chockfull of adventure you will find in Skyrim (which will provide you with gameplay for days, if not months on end).  Personally, I prefer more straight forward titles, but it’s hard to argue with a game that provides you with 200+ hours of gameplay.  But Uncharted plays out like a modern day Indiana Jones adventure.  The presentation is so well crafted, i’ve had people just watch me play just to experience the story.  And it definitely is an experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone.
  • Skyrim: I have a strong love / hate relationship with this game.  Furthermore, it doesn’t even rank as one of my personal top 10 games of the year.  It’s loaded with a load of quests breaking glitches, an incredibly infuriating user interface / menu system, and the carte blanche setting makes no sense.  I’m actually aiming to make an entirely separate post about this in a few days.  That said, I am able to keep an objective perspective and appreciate the game for all the other things it does right, and that’s content!  Skyrim is the game that keeps on giving.  While completing one quest; you can expect to pick up 4-5 separate quests along the way.  The value packed in this game more than it’s MSRP price and can easily keep you occupied for quite some time, if not a full year.
  • Runner-up #1: L.A. Noire – I wrote a piece on this earlier in the year, you can find here. This game has been in development for quite sometime.  Thankfully, the wait was worth it.  A really smart story, interesting characters with depth, and top notch production all in one seamless package.  This game hit many high points and raised the bar to a new level.  Despite all this, the game does fall into familiar GTA territory in it’s mission structure at times (i.e. go here & kill ‘X’, wash, rinse, and repeat).  I have high hopes for this series.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait as long.

Worst Game of the Year:

  • Duke Nukem Forever: Oh how the mighty have fallen.  Jesus, I don’t even know where to begin with this shit pile.  After being in developmental hell for nearly two decades, we were finally treated to one of the worst, trivial gaming experiences ever created.  There is seriously not one redeeming quality to be found here.  And to add further insult to injury, Bulletstorm came out just a few months earlier and fully captured everything this game should have been. AVOID AT ALL COST!

Sleeper Game of the Year:

  • El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron: This was a quirky little title.  There’s no way to describe this game without it sounding like some generic platformmer.  But the mix of visuals along with its style of combat give it an unique flare.  In many ways it reminds me of a toned down version of Okami (another title I’m sure none of you played).  I know all that doesn’t give it the more glowing endorsement, but it is worth playing and presents a nice change of pace form the typical dreck that’s been  churned out this year.
  • Runner-up: War of the Worlds: This will be a polarizing title due to its style of play.  If you;re an old school gamer familiar with titles such as Out of the World and Flashback, you’ll fall in love with how much this game emulates the old school presentation and gameplay with a modern facelift. But new generation gamers will balk at how finicky the controls are and the unforgiving style of play.  Personally I think it’s a welcome addition to an age where game are so pussified that they practically play themselves.  Plus, it’s fairly cheap, but will worth the money.

Diamond in the Rough :

  • NOTHING: That’s how lame this year was.  The majority of title were either just good enough,that they really didn’t have much of an interesting base to build on.  I would love to have a more positive outlook but this year’s offerings really were tepid.  Very few risks and very little awesome.

Biggest Surprise of the Year:

  • WWE Allstars: Yea, Im surprised as you that a wrestling game would top my list as one of the best games games I’ve played this year.  Admittedly, I do have some bias since I grew up idolizing these characters, but this game really is that fun and worthwhile.  Not to mention it has a much fresh take than the standard WWE games on the market.  It’s pure arcade style goodness.

Wall of Shame:
Admittedly, I haven’t played all this year’s major titles. Here are some those titles:

  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 / Battlefield 3: Yep, I’ve said it earlier before but I am thoroughly burnt out on FPS and as such have chose to avoid both of these titles. But considering the turnout, this lame little rivalry fizzled out into a whimpering stalemate with no clear winner.  Given the massive build up, I would have expected more.  based on reviews and videos, they turned out to be more of the same riffraff from their previous incarnations.
  • Rage
  • Brink
  • Alice Madness Returns
  • Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Shadow of the Damned
  • Infamous 2
  • Killzone 3
  • Yakuza 4
  • MLB 11: The Show
  • Twisted Metal
  • Little Big Planet 2

Personal Top Ten Games of 2011:
My personal favorite titles from 2011. Though I’ve missed some reputable titles, I’ve played enough for a solid definitive list:

1. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
2. Gears of War 3
3. Batman: Arkham City
4. Dead Space 2
5. L.A. Noire
6. Portal 2
7. Assassin’s Creed: Revelation
8. Saint’s Row the Third
9. Deus Ex: Human Evolution
10. Bulletstorm

There isn’t much else to be said.  2011 just flat out reeked of mediocrity and laziness that I’m afraid of what’s to come in 2012, especially considering we’re right at the point where a new iteration of consoles are right around the corner.  Even worse, there was a total lack of peripheral support.  Nintendo barely released 3 titles worth mentioning, not to mention that horrid DS launch.  Microsoft didn’t do any better with the small scattering of Kinect games released, many of which were garbage.  Surprisingly, Sony came through with some pretty surpassing exclusives, though most of them were HD remakes.  But I don’t like being such a debbie downer, I do have hope.  There have been new exciting developments from the indie scene that is yearning to be recognized.  Whatever happens, let’s just hope that gaming continues to maintain its true essence: being fun!

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Humanity Redefinied

I’ve put the finishing touches on Deus Ex: Human Revolution a few days ago. After marinating on the experience for a few days, I found myself thinking more about the game’s thematic elements more than the game itself. First off, this is a retrospective and not a review per se. So I will make reference to a few of the game’s key plot elements to better illustrate my points. But I will try to keep the spoilage to a minimal. But you have been warned. Following up on that point, this post assumes that the reader has played the game or, at the very least, is familiar with the product and what it is about.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution somewhat shares a similar legacy with Duke Nukem Forever in that they both were overdue and needed to meet a lot of expectations. Duke Nukem failed….terribly; Deus Ex didn’t. In fact, it’s been an overwhelming success, and rightfully so. Not being a huge PC gamer, I never played the original classic. However, I did play the follow-up sequel, Invisible Wars, and loved it despite the disdain received from fans of the original. Duke Nukem failed because it was a horrible game: generic gameplay, stale presentation, dated design, and so on. Deus Ex on the other hand, provides players with a fresh experience not found in many games today. But that’s not to say it’s not without it’s share of glaring flaws.

Positives

     

  • Versatility / Level Design: This is the game’s major watermark. The degree of variety pertaining to how players approach the game is amazing. This goes beyond the typical stealth / combat cliche. Levels are designed in such a way that offer multiple alternatives of reaching a destination or completing a goal. I’ve played this game three times with each run exploring a different path while using a mix of stealth and / or combat. It’s this kind of foresight that keeps games fresh and delivers greater value to the final product.
  • Presentation / Production: Right form the start, the level of polish and attention to detail is strikingly evident. In some way, the cutscenes pale in comparison to the actual in-game modeling. If it weren’t for the grossly atrocious loading screens, this would be one really slick game.
  • Gameplay: At its heart, this is a stealth game. But the stable of augmented powers and weapons players have at their disposal make the possibilities almost endless. From a gameplay perspective, there is no one ‘right’ way to approach this game. If you want to be a ghost the entire game, you do so without killing anyone (minus bosses). Or, you can dispose of enemies in a variety of ways. The possibilities are endless.

Negatives

     

  • Linearity: While the gameplay mechanics and levels offer a mixed bag in its approach. You’re pretty much directed as to where you need to go from point to point. This kind of hand-holding really cheapens the experience. And in some ways in trivializes the story. Not to sound like a crotchety, old game,r but one of the things that made Invisible Wars such a great game was its open-ended, non-linear world. The game didn’t shepherd along your progression. The main plot was as clearly defined as all your other quests. Everything seemed to blend to together with an equal level of importance. Linear games are definitely not a “bad” thing, but this is a series based that’s been about choices, choices that extended beyond just gameplay elements. In previous game, you could kill off critical character early on changing the plot dramatically. It’s possible to finish some side-quests with a “good / bad” choice but that’s all really. Other than that, your path is pretty much set from start to finish.
  • Shoddy Enemy A.I.: Finding the balance for good enemy A.I. is tricky. Now, I’ve been reading countless scores of people complaining about the games’s high degree of difficulty. Maybe I’m just a different breed of gamer; but I found the game to be relatively easy. Both my stealth & lethal combat playthroughs were a breeze. It’s too easy to take advantage of the enemy A.I. scripting. For example, if you’re spotted you can easily avoid pursuit by retreating to the previous / next room. Enemies appear to be confined within a certain area and will never move beyond that space. This makes it easy to set up easy head shots. Or you can wait until their alarmed status drops and try again. When you realize how it works, it makes the game terrible easy. Even if you do brave it out in the same area with alerted enemies. Retreating to hiding spots undetected or into a vent produces the same results. However, the boss battles are strangely incongruent with the rest of the game. They almost teeter on brink of being broken. It goes from essentially a stealth game to a straight, action romp.

Transhumanism
The real meat of this game lies in the story’s theme of use and advancement of transhumanism or (H+) , a topic that’s becoming a serious controversial issue. There is plethora of supplemental material that provide scant perspectives of the topic; but none of it it really germane to the game’s completion. Being that this is a prequel to the series, I would expect there to be a larger degree of moral ambiguity present. Instead the game presents a needlessly, overblown tale of super-organizations and corporate conspiracies. I realize this fits into the wheelhouse of the previous games; but it feels ridiculous and rushed in this setting. They could have created a much stronger and richer tale had it been more grounded and explored the issues of augmentend vs. bioluddites. Which is shame, because they’ve created a very clever and intriguing world with probable issues: drug addiction for augmented people, whether augmentation is a lose or advancement of human evolution, etc. Some of the side quests do a decent job of touching on these issues; but again, it boils down to making a “good or bad” answer and not just plain solution. The game’s narrative fails to capture this, and practically trivializes it by packaging it up in four buttoned-up endings. Essentially, players never really have to deliberate about any course of action they take. All roads lead to the same destination, baring no effect to the end. Players can literally save right before the end and choice which ending to see. That just reeks of lazy writing and poor plot structuring.

Change Is Coming
Nitpicking aside, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a great game. It raises the bar by presenting an engrossing, smart game that is simply a blast to play. I would highly recommend it to any gamer out there. And I definitely look forward to future iterations. Whether you’re a purist and welcome evolution with open arms; change is inevitable. It’s not a simple matter of “good & bad” or “right & wrong”, change just is. Although I don’t think this game is revolutionary by any means, it does lay down the groundwork for that revolution.

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A Retrospective on L.A. Noire

I’ve just completed L.A. Noire. And it’s by far one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had to date. Having said that, I do believe this is merely the groundwork for an even better game in the future. The production value and quality here pushes gaming into a more mature area. In an industry that’s over-saturated with cookie-cutter FPS, this is a welcome and much needed breath of fresh air.

For all the praise I can heap on this game, there are just as many glaring hitches. For example, when characters use stairs, it actually appears as if they’re going over each individual step. While this isn’t a new development, this is the first time I’ve seen it done so seamlessly without a break in animation or just sliding over the surface. On the flip side, the animation / movement for all the characters is the same. Let’s just say, I find it hard to believe a weathered, old booze hound like Rusty Galloway to run and trot up a set of stairs exactly the same as the fit and much younger Cole Phelps. Likewise, there are minor animation quibbles: interacting with elevators producing this weird sliding movement which is jarring, there is some minor pop-in when entering / exiting vehicles, etc. Minor details, I know but still a tad distracting when compared to how everything else in the game works so gracefully.

However, my main criticisms are two-fold. One is the game’s heavy repetition and stilted linearity. Once you get a handle on gathering clues and interviews, it just becomes a routine set of motions. The last case in the game incorporates this somewhat, just a shame the majority of the other cases are so mired by such streamlined “detective work”. And the Mickey Mouse logic behind some of the cases doesn’t help either. The resolution to some of the cases files are based on some flimsy and / or faulty procedure or barely pass beyond a reasonable doubt, even for law of the 1940’s. This is especially true of the Homicide cases.

As for the linearity, this is where Rockstar (and other developers in general) should take a page from school of David Page (a la Heavy Rain). I’ve said it once and I’ll keep saying it again: if games had just a quarter of the passion and style of David Cage’s work, video games would be in a much better place overall. I’d expect a game of this caliber to have more grey areas, branching storyline with cases that can either go flat out go cold or produce multiple endings. Given the technical limitations, limited lines of dialogue, need for lots of motion capturing, etc. The production costs would be astronomically massive and the production would probably require more time than what’s expected for a budding franchise.

Despite all nagging issues, L.A. Noire is easily one of the best highlights of the year, if not this generation. The soundtrack is captivating, character interaction / dialogue is top-notch, and most importantly it’s just an extremely fun game. I’d highly recommend gamers of all types try it out, not just for its detailed production values, but for the experience overall. L.A. Noire only scratches the surface of what’s capable and moves gaming into a better place. And I for one, can’t wait for what’s to come.

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