Saturday, November 29, 2008

Left 4 Dead Quick Review

It's Valve. It's Zombies. What else do you need to know? I said "quick review" right there in the title.

Oh, okay. Here's more.

Left 4 Dead takes the zombie apocalypse genre and does it right - more than right. Then, it tosses out the old cliches, like slow, lumbering zombies and replaces them with spastic "infected" that run at you in huge numbers like those women at the Filene's Basement bridal gown sales. And just to prove how insanely innovative they are, Valve added five special types of infected - sort of mini-bosses, that each have special attacks and abilities.

The single-player is fun, but the online co-op play is really great. It puts the cooperation back in co-op, as players can get stuck in situations that only another player can help them out of. Players can heal each other and revive each other.

I have yet to try out the online versus, where you get to play two teams of four against each other - one survivors and the other as special infecteds - but it looks pretty sweet, too.

There's not much to Left 4 Dead beyond all that. But again, it's Valve, so the game has the absolute highest level of polish in the gameplay, presentation, and level design perhaps possible. The craftsmanship of software engineering from this company shows in every title it makes, and Left 4 Dead is just the latest example of how to do everything - even something as cliched in the videogaming world as zombies - and do it right.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Milestones : Defender

A joystick and a button. That was all we needed in those early days. The joystick moved your ship or character and the button fired or jumped. A few games went outside that paradigm, adding a button for other features such as a pointlessly risky hyperspace jump (I'm looking at you Asteroids), or replaced the joystick with a slick trakball or paddle, but for the most part the joystick and button served our needs.

Which even at the time seemed silly to us. I mean, it's a spaceship, and the few spaceship interiors we had seen either in reality or fiction all had huge control bridges with banks of consoles on them. Even single-person fighters we had seen in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica had more than a joystick and a button.

So then Defender appeared. Here's how it appeared to me, on a Saturday night in my rural Ohio hometown.

My friends Andy and Barry were staying overnight in my basement, as we did frequently in those days, to of course gorge ourselves on videogames and snacks. We had Barry's Atari all hooked up, and it was time for a snack run. Andy and I took up that charge, leaving Barry there engrossed in Riddle of the Sphynx.

At Lawson's, a nearby convenience store, there was always one arcade game, and we knew what it was because we were there frequently. Tonight, as we gathered up the snacks, Andy and I noticed that a new game was there, making strange new sounds. This was Defender.

We just stared at the controls and the attract mode (alternating the title screen, the onscreen play demo and the high score chart)for a minute and took it all in. In the middle of the control panel were two buttons, used to select either a one-player game or a two-player one, which was pretty standard at the time.

To the left was the familiar joystick, but it only moved the side-scrolling ship up and down. To the right of the joystick and a little bit down the panel was a strange "reverse" button, which flipped the orientation of the ship from left to right and back again. So these functions would be done with the left hand. I was immediately skeptical of the reverse button.

On the far right side was the good old "fire" button, and to the immediate left of that a "thrust" button. So now we had a joystick and two buttons involved in steering the ship instead of just the joystick handling all of those functions. My closed-minded cynicism grew.

But wait, there's more. To the left and a little bit down from the thrust button was a strange new green button labeled "smart bomb". And way out there in the middle of the control panel, far from either hand, and below the aforementioned player select buttons, was the good old "hyperspace" button, again only recommended if you're about to die, as it will most likely destroy your ship if you use it.

We turned our attention to the screen. It looked incredible. Mountains scrolled by the fast-moving ship, aliens were plucking people off the planet, the ship was shooting the aliens and rescuing them before they hit the ground, there was an incredibly detailed and functionally useful radar screen, and the sound effects which had moments ago gotten our attention from across the store were a symphony of digital carnage.

I put the first quarter in. I died pretty quickly. Andy tried a game. He died pretty quickly. We put down our munchies and went to the counter for more quarters. Our previous doubts about the ship movement controls were the first to go, as we grew accustomed to the tight responsiveness of the reverse button. Andy was the first to pull a quick reverse and fire after flying past an alien ship, which was quite satisfying, as the maneuver seemed to leave the alien ship momentarily confused. I was the first to lose all the humanoids and see the world blow up and the game go crazy. We both figured out almost immediately to be very conservative with our limited supply of smart bombs.

Hours later, we returned to my basement with our munchies, no change left save for a few pennies. Barry had dozed off. We told him about Defender the next day. This title had dragged us out of our primitive control schemes kicking and screaming, demanding with its hardcore difficulty that we adapt to the future of gaming, a challenge we have gladly accepted ever since.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Imagine If You Were Like This

The first achievement points I got on my XBox 360 were on Half-Life 2, when I threw a soda can at a cop. I had heard of achievment points and gamerscores of course, before I got the system, but at that exact moment I realized what an utterly pointless system of points it was.

In my 38+ years of videogaming, I've never needed any reason to play videogames other than the games themselves. Game designers and programmers create them, and I play them - with a particular personal drive to explore the worlds they create. I've never needed a little sound effect, an on-screen pop-up, and a total number to accompany me on my journeys.

Nor have I needed any methodology to gauge myself against other people playing the same game, which seems to be one of the driving priorities of the "achievment point idolatry generation" (referred to from here on out as APIG ). I play what I want, when I want, how I want, and on my own schedule.

I shudder to think of those gamers for whom achievement points actually matter more than the joy of gaming itself. I know they're out there. Their priorities have centered on their personal comparisons to other gamers' achievements rather than having a good time fully exploring a game world, or trying out different items, classes, or playstyles.

Instead of just gaming and having fun, they have attached their fragile self-image to their hobby to such a degree that their gaming habits are constantly determined by what other people are playing and what they are "achieving".

Let's have fun with an example. We'll use two gamers, called Gamer 1 and 2, who for this example we'll say have some real life contact like school or work where they have time to talk about their gaming. Gamer 1, one of our APIGs, constantly claims to be on a tight budget and has thus made plans to buy only Big Holiday Game B and C this year. Gamer 2, a more casual gamer with an actual life outside of gaming, has been watching reviews for Big Holiday Game A, and decides to get it when it comes out.

Gamer 1 of course, deathly afraid of Gamer 2 getting achievment points he doesn't have, or just playing one of the Big Holiday Games before him and thus putting a chink in his pathetically fragile gamer ego, rushes out and gets Big Holiday Game A as well, and then scrambles to finish it as fast as possible before Gamer 2, who could care less about achievement points or where Gamer 1 is at in the game, because he's having a blast with it.

And so it goes through the holiday releases, with Gamer 1 getting every one of them and beating them in a week, while Gamer 2 plods along with a few games he got, having a good time with complete indifference to Gamer 1's ego. Gamer 1 constantly quizzes Gamer 2 about what he's getting next, so that he too can be there, following him from game to game like the little kid back in elementary school a few grades behind who follows the elder kid around, emulating everything the elder does because he's the coolest person that he knows.

Imagine if you were like Gamer 1. Your entire self-worth defined by competing with and comparing yourself against the other gamers you know in such a manner as described in the example above. None of them offer you any serious competition, because they just don't care (they just play games for the sake of playing games). But you go on from one new release to the next, and you even play really bad games, just to jack up those achievement points and be the first in the circle of people you know to beat them.

It reminds me of the people you sometimes see at a summer blockbuster movie. You're there to watch a movie that you are interested in, and you sit quietly and pay attention to the characters and the story. They talk, fidget, check their cell phones for text messages, and generally don't pay attention to the screen at all. Why are they even there? Because so many of their friends are going, and so that they can say simply that they went, too. Just being able to say you went to the movie has become more important that taking it all in.

And so it goes with the Achievement Point Idolatry Generation (again, the APIGs). Just playing through a game as fast as possible, and culling achievement points, has replaced truly enjoying a game, and watching it unfold as the designers intended. Bragging rights and adolescent egos tied to pointless numbers have replaced the spirit of discovery and the thrill of besting an actual in-game challenge.

I don't think most gamers are like that - yet. Imagine if you were, though, how shallow your enjoyment of your hobby would become. How the other gamers you talk to would dread your presence, and yet - at the same time - gain a greater appreciation of how they just play videogames to - yep - just play them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Goodbye Ultima Online - Again

Last night I wrapped up my business in Ultima Online and closed my account, for the third and most likely final time since I first logged on over a decade ago. I hadn't been playing much at all for about the last year, and had been hanging on mostly to hold onto my lighthouse in the game, and out of nostalgia.

My final voyage across the seas of the Atlantic shard (server) was uneventful, seeing no other ships at sea, all for the purpose of carting several trunks of valuables to the bank. I tore down my lighthouse but kept the most valuable items in case I ever want to return.

I doubt I will. I came back last year to help test and play the highly disappointing Kingdom Reborn client, and have done little since then in the game. My old friends are gone, and I never really got my gear up to the standards ushered in by the Age of Shadows expansion over five years ago.

It was a great part of my life, but I no longer have the time or money for it, and the hope that the game could inexplicably make some triumphant comeback in terms of appeal and playability has long since died. I hope it chugs along forever, and that people enjoy playing it, but it will have to go on without the Admiral terrorizing the empty seas.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Portal : Still Alive (and Kicking)

My leading contender for "Game of the Year" so far in 2008 is Portal. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I'd just gotten an XBox 360 in June, along with The Orange Box, and that's when I got to play it. My previous blog entries detail pretty well my love of this game.

But what about "Portal : Still Alive", recently released on the XBox Live service as a downloadable version of the original with 14 new "Challlenge Levels" added? Well, it's great, too. I've been playing it for the last week, first going through the 19 levels of the original and beating it again before tackling the new levels.

The new levels are, so far, not all that much of a step up in difficulty from anything seen in the original ones. There are some new environmental elements that pop up, though, which makes the new levels feel refreshingly different at times. I won't spoil them other than to say that they are platforming classics.

Missing from the new test chambers is the voice of the computer GLaDOS telling you about cake and such, but this omission is a minor loss. The levels themselves are all good, bringing back that Portal feeling when you swear you can actually hear the wheels turning and sparks clicking in your own noggin when you figure things out. I wish there were more than 14 new levels, but I'll take what I can get.

So the game is fine, but the package - 1200 Microsoft Points - is sort of a rip off for those of us who own the Orange Box. In my opinion, just the new levels should have been available as a free download for Orange Box players alongside the 1200-point whole package offering.

But Portal : Still Alive is what we got, at least for the time being. For myself, it was worth it just to get these new levels and play them. For someone who is only casually attached to Portal, or whose moral compass allows them to deny themselves the absolute joy of new Portal levels to stand firm against such a rip off, this package might not be ideal.

I'm so apeshit for this game that's I'd probably plop down ten dollars every month for another 14 levels. I hope they don't do that, but instead just focus on a proper sequel for a game that certainly deserves one.