PAX Preparedness Kit

I’m a couple days away from my trek cross-country for PAX, which will be my second trip to Seattle. I realized the other day that the last time I went was exactly four years ago, and I learned about Sarah Palin being the VP nominee from a buddy while I was hopping online between panels. Hopefully after this year I can go a little more often than a presidential cycle.

So I’m working on getting everything ready, this time more detailed than last time since I’m going professionally. I’ll be meeting to see a bunch of games, and speaking at a panel on Saturday at 5 PM. If you’re coming, stop by and say hello, and make sure you cheer extra-loud when I speak about war crimes.

(Don’t actually do that last part.)

  • I’m not entirely offended by Angry Birds costing so much and having DLC, but this is another good opportunity to point out how utterly baffled I am by that series’ success. They’re not even including Angry Birds Space, the one game in the series that really grabbed me as fun and interesting.
  • I just love hearing stories of how Molyneux is totally insane.
  • Hawken looks good, and Oculus Rift looks good. You got chocolate in my peanut butter, etc.
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Mario’s gold rush and mobile bleed-over

I’ve been playing a good bit of New Super Mario Bros 2 on my 3DS, and couldn’t help but notice something missing from the general internet reaction. Most reviews and the general consensus seem to agree that the game is fine, serviceable, but nothing special. And oddly enough, “nothing special” for a Mario game is unique, because we’ve been trained over the years to expect Mario games to be new and fresh and exciting every time. Nintendo tends to knock it out of the park, so a base-hit is jarring.

But I think at least some of the reaction has missed what Nintendo was trying for here. The level design itself isn’t crackling with new ideas, but the base premise of the game does exactly what the company has been pressured to for years. It takes notes from the mobile market. The standard stages are just a precursor to the much longer-term goal of collecting a million coins. The primary method of pulling that off is in Coin Rush mode, which gives short time spans and multipliers. The game is meant to be played, over and over, in short bursts, over an extremely long period of time. Maybe even months.

Sound familiar? Think about mobile hits like Jetpack Joyride. It’s a quick pick-up-and-play experience with a near infinite number of goals. You aren’t expected to play for very long at a time, but you are expected to play it over a long period of time. After years of analysts telling Nintendo they need to get into the mobile market — and going into convulsions at the slightest hint that they will — the company took some pages from those ideas.

Now, granted, taking from another platform isn’t really innovation, and it’s certainly not the kind of creative new gameplay concepts that the company is known for. But the parallels seemed so immediately obvious to me that I have to wonder why it’s been missing so much from the dialogue. It’s not that the game is just more of the same ol’ Mario. It’s actually trying something incredibly different, structurally speaking, from the standard Mario franchise. The differences just aren’t very clear within the level design itself.

(As a side-note, this model lends itself to microtransactions. Frankly I’m surprised Nintendo didn’t take it the extra step and sell a 24-Hour Double Coin Bonus for a buck or something. It would fit perfectly. But that might be too on-the-nose, and I’m sure gamers would revolt even more than they already have.)

  • I do like all the efforts to get the youth vote this year. Xbox 360 is a natural spot for it.
  • I continue to be baffled by why Sony keeps undermining its Vita platform exclusives.
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The Walking Dead: A Lesson in Game Choice

Thanks to my PlayStation Plus membership, I finally got around to playing the first two episodes of The Walking Dead. And quite frankly, I am blown away. This game (taken as a set) has rocketed into my top five games of the year so far, possibly even my top three. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why it blew me away so much. I hesitate to pin it down to just one thing — the puzzles are smartly designed to create thought without ever feeling like you’re stymied, the voice acting is pitch-perfect, the characterization is varied and complements itself well, the art style is appropriately gruesome without ever overstepping. But more than any one factor, the choices have made the difference.

To point out why, I’ll compare it to another series famous for its choices.

I’m on-record loving Mass Effect, to the point that I didn’t even hate the ending of the third installment. I think it’s a great AAA series and its choices carry some serious impact. But Walking Dead is equally impressive, in an entirely different way. I’ll call it breadth instead of depth. The Walking Dead seems to have less variation in the story based on your choices. The Trophies, for example, are just chapter markers and they remain the same no matter what choices you make. You clearly can’t impact the direction of the plot in any serious way. It will hit its beats one way or the other. But what it lacks in in that quality, it makes up for by having each and every choice totally ambiguous, with no wrong answer.

Mass Effect, and BioWare games in general, present a lot of choices — but one is usually the moral one. We’re presented with a nice option, and a mean option, and we roleplay according to how which side of the likability spectrum we want our Shepard to fall on. Even the choices that are meant to be a little more ambiguous fall into very clear lines between the perspectives. Everything is clear-cut, and choices that dip more into the ethically gray are still ethically gray for very different reasons. We always understand exactly where the line is.

The Walking Dead doesn’t do that. It constantly presents you with impossible situations that have no right answer, and then it brilliantly places a time limit on those choices so you can’t over-think it. It’s all gut instinct based on your moral values. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll dip into very minor, very vague spoiler territory regarding the end of second episode.

At the end of the second episode, you’re presented with a choice to commit what would ordinarily be a moral wrong — a crime, so to speak, even if crime doesn’t really exist in this world anymore. Clementine, the little girl that serves as the major emotional center of the game, doesn’t want you to do it. Everyone else is in favor of it.

I chose to take a moral stand, because I had recently justified another moral wrong by explaining that I had done it to protect us from bad people. In my mind, Clem needed to see a clear line between committing a crime because we needed to protect ourselves, and committing one simply because it would be convenient or helpful to us.

When I talked to my friend Bryan, he had gone against her wishes and done it. In his mind, protecting Clementine is his first and only priority, and if that means committing a crime to make sure she’s healthy, then so be it. The game even presented him a dialogue option to reassure her afterwards.

Neither of these answers are wrong or right. They’re both purely instinctive and morally defensible. It led to an amazing conversation in which we talked about our motivations for prioritizing the emotional or physical health of a little girl who does not actually exist. And this choice is just one of a myriad that are equally complex. How many video games can you say that about?

Absolutely amazing. Bring on episode three.

  • I can’t say online co-op excites me, but I’m up for more Dragon Age. The second game was maligned a bit too much, and people still remember it as worse than it actually was.
  • The comparison between the PSP and Vita is admittedly a little unfair, but it’s one way of highlighting how much the device is struggling. Which is a shame, because as a Vita owner it really is a fantastic device with some great games. I love mine.
  • I don’t particularly see the problem with a video game ending, but inasmuch as Diablo 3 ends, this patch seems like it should sort out that problem nicely.
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The home-buying process (in meme)

It’s House Buying Eve, and tomorrow everything is official. Since it’s already a bit late, I thought I’d do something a little simpler for tonight’s entry.

(By the way, I missed yesterday’s comic wrap-up due to an internet outage, but Avengers vs X-Men was the only book out, and it was unremarkable. Not bad, just not noteworthy.)

So presenting, the thought process of buying a house in four acts.

Deciding I’m sick of my apartment:

Searching and making offers:

Finding the house:

Making the final offer:

– Fin –

  • I reviewed Darksiders 2 and Dust: An Elysian Tail this week. One more to go!
  • Sony may be right that it’s too early to cut the Vita price from a business perspective, but waiting out this holiday season is also a pretty big gamble. Unless they get some sales, third parties aren’t going to hop on-board, and that creates a vicious cycle.
  • Man, I don’t even know anymore.
  • Jack Lumber looks a little too Fruit Ninja for my tastes, but that said, the trailer is worth watching. I’ve seen more than one person compare it to the old Ren & Stimpy cartoons, and it makes sense that people creating content now would have been raised on that stuff.
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Sound Shapes

This weekend was packed with reviews — the first of which should be going up tomorrow — but I actually managed to get in some more time with Sound Shapes. And, this shouldn’t come as any surprise, but it’s really very good.

I don’t consider myself much of a music nerd. I know what I like and stumble upon new artists once in a while. But the interplay of the music and platforming stages is really beautifully simple. It feels like your movements have an impact, but if you miss a note or two it doesn’t ruin the whole effect. I played through a Beck stage just to hear a style I was more familiar with, and they actually incorporated lyrics into it.

So far the community stuff I’ve tried out has been very much what you’d expect from early community stages. Mario theme, Zelda theme, and so on. Imitation always seems to be the first step for community builders. People recreate what’s familiar to learn what does and doesn’t work with the tools. I’m looking forward to dipping my toes in after a few weeks or a month, to see what the creators are getting up to.

I might even try creating a stage myself, but I’ve never considered myself very good at stage creation, so I probably wouldn’t publish it. We’ll see.

  • I interviewed Steve Downes, the voice of Master Chief, for his thoughts on Halo 4 and beyond.
  • Paper Mario has been on my list of anticipated 3DS games since the system came out. It just looks so perfectly tailored to the device. Bring it on, November.
  • A casualty of today’s 3DS announcements was Luigi’s Mansion. I’m looking forward to it, but I can wait. That’s not in my “gotta have it asap” list.
  • I already have both Outland and BloodRayne, but both are worth the download if you have a PS+ subscription. Fair warning, though, BloodRayne gets ludicrous-hard.
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BioShocking

I’ve never cared about BioShock’s multiplayer, but I’m not made of stone. Cutting features just after a delay and studio departures is a little concerning. Though, if it’s in service of more time polishing the single-player, I can’t say I mind. Does anyone actually play BioShock for multiplayer? I mean, anyone at all?

  • I wrote up a piece for 1UP’s “Daring Games and Developers” cover story, on why Keiji Inafune has some serious daring credit to his name.
  • One thing noted in the story, which I think some people are missing, is that this supposed Plants vs Zombies shooter isn’t by the same PopCap that made the original. It’s a new studio, and EA has a tendency to farm out its popular properties to specialized talent. That said, if it is legit, I’m willing to reserve judgment until I see it for myself.
  • Who knew that I would ever write a story about a Cabela’s hunting game? It’s the sort of title I sort of figured was the gift you got for your non-gamer dad at Christmas or something. Still, it’s implementing a pretty cool feature, even if it seems to remove some amount of aiming skill.
  • The situation at Zynga continues to worsen. I feel a bit sorry for Schappert.
  • I previewed Hell Yeah at PAX, and it was surprisingly fun. It’s a game that looks extremely awkward, but feels perfectly smooth once the controller is in your hands. So, mark your calendars, to at least try the demo next month.
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Batman gets weird. Well… weirder.

Batman comics always have some pretty strange overtones. We are talking about a borderline lunatic who took the death of his parents as the catalyst to train himself into a weapon, after all. But this week, with its two Batman comics, were a little more off-kilter than normal.

Batman told a little self-contained story as we hold for the issue zeros, and it started off well. It was about a brother and sister, and the brother who was gay kept getting hassled. When his sister tried to stand up for him, they both started getting beaten, and Batman stepped in. That’s a nice enough little one-off. Then it turned to the girl messing with the electrical grid and figuring out way too much about Batman, and then being determined to keep meddling after he flat-out told her to stop. It seemed like it was aiming to end on a note of determination and perseverance  but it came off more like this girl was going to get herself killed because she didn’t listen.

Batman & Robin closed up the story arc of the terrorist Batman impersonators. I thought I had heard it went on-hold due to the events in Aurora, so I’m not sure if we missed an issue or what happened — but this all felt a bit rushed and slipshod. This is a story that could be handled well with a deft hand, but this wasn’t it. The book alternated between being a fun group action book and having some pretty grisly imagery. I’m not sure what to make of it, but hopefully after issue zero they start a new arc with more legs.

Spider-Men was characteristically fun, with some great little jabs at comics and ret-cons in general. It was mostly set-up and dialogue, but I actually prefer that to all action, or brainless action. It was clearly set-up for what will mostly be an action book next time, but they’ve wrapped up the emotional stakes and now we can get down to punching Mysterio square in the jaw.

  • The Papo & Yo trailer is probably one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while for setting a tone and mood, even if it doesn’t communicate much about the game itself.
  • I’m kind of interested in the Leviathan DLC, but not for an extra line of dialogue or two at the end.
  • One of those reviews I mentioned last night is Hybrid, which I’m looking forward to cracking into. I was sorry to hear about its launch troubles, but word is they’re fixed now so I’ll start it up tonight.
  • Indie Uprising always has a few gems that I like. Epic Dungeon and Cthulu were particular favorites of mine.
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Night Notes: Can’t Talk, Busy

If my blogs are a bit sporadic or short this week, it’s simply because apparently preparing to move while reviewing a few different games takes up a lot of free time. So tonight calls for a quick hit. Rest assured, dear reader — because I’m fairly certain there is only one of you — those pieces will be hitting sooner than later.

  • I penned a few words on why the “next-gen” Final Fantasy teaser gives me hope for the future. Reserved hope, maybe, but hope nonetheless. The main thrust of my point was that it looks like Square Enix is looking in a more fantastical direction, and having been playing through FF4 that’s exactly what the series needs.
  • I don’t so much mind the idea of Achievements for games like Solitaire and Minesweeper, but the Achievements they do offer seem so weird and lame. Flipping your first card? Seriously?
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Shameless Self-Promotion: PAX Prime Edition

Those who have followed me for a while probably already know that I was on a panel at PAX East, on my birthday no less. It was called “Borders Bigotry and Body Dumps: International Games Controversies.” We had a pretty good crowd for (Easter) Sunday morning, and even though I’m pretty sure most of us were relative rookies on stage, I think we pulled it off pretty well.

If you missed that panel, or really love it and plan on hitting both PAXes, you should come our New and Improved* panel at PAX Prime. It’s titled “Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies,” and it will be taking place at 5 PM in the Unicorn theater. We plan to touch on a few subjects that we talked about last time, but also to tackle new ones that we either didn’t have time for or have cropped up since then. I’m particularly excited to talk about the Ollie North controversy, and to bounce around ideas about Spec Ops: The Line.

So if you’re in the Seattle area and want to spend an hour with some chin-stroking commentary, some of which you are almost certain to disagree with, come to our panel! And if you are going to throw tomatoes, please only use fresh ones.

* May not actually be new or improved. I mean, probably? But we’ll see.

  • Dishonored looks like it has a pretty impressive set of actors, but as some commenters observed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be impressive voice actors. I can hear all of their voices by thinking of them, though, so that’s a good sign. You want unique qualities in that kind of work.
  • SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE.
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A very Spider-Wednesday

It occurred to me only after taking my weekly picks to the cashier that all of them featured Spider-Man on the cover. The clerk even gave me some ribbing about it after I realized and pointed it out. What can I say? He’s the best.

The non-Spidey book was AvX, which continues to pick up steam. We’re entering the phase now where several of the principle characters are starting to have rifts and disagreements, and no one is objectively correct. The Phoenix Force is wreaking havoc on the Four’s psyches, and they can tell it’s happening but just barely hold it back. Cyclops seems to be the only one keeping it together, and the ending implies some kind of savior role for him. But in regards to Spider-Man, it featured him on the cover because he took a heroic beating in a fiendishly clever plan to deal with two of the Phoenix Four. And best of all, his plan worked. A few broken bones later, he emerged victorious.

He’s the best.

Avenging Spider-Man was good; a little funnier than last time, but also a bit more heavy-handed. When you make direct reference to the Occupy movement and have a character literally say “corporations are people,” you might be trying too hard. But it was in service of a sweet moment with the anti-villain. Ultimate Spider-Man continues to be excellent. I’m running out of effusive praise. It’s juggling a lot of plots with a very deft hand, though I think they could probably do without referencing the “Divided We Fall” crossover story. It just seems like a side-note to all the other action going on.

  • I didn’t play the original Witcher, but I liked Witcher 2 alright. It felt a bit restrictive in some ways, though, so hearing about Cyberpunk’s customization features might just tempt me over.
  • Jay Z now has 98 problems, as “never produced a video game” was number 87.
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