Monday, February 16, 2009

Videogame Glossary : Breakthrough

A breakthrough refers to a gameplay session where the player gets past being stuck on a particular puzzle or challenge in a game, usually on the first new attempt after being vexed by it and giving up during a previous gameplay session.

Sometimes a breakthrough can occur months or years after the player has given up on the game and moved on to other games. Breakthroughs occur with such regularity in videogaming that they can be used as a mental exercise to avoid excessive frustration.

Breakthroughs seem to be reliant on games designed with more frequent save points. In games where the save points are far apart, and thus the player is forced to repeat several very challenging tasks just to return to the point where they were stuck, the likelihood of breakthoughs diminish greatly. The trend in modern games is away from this sort of design, though.

Videogame Glossary : Fountain

A fountain refers to a place in a videogame where the player can acquire unlimited healing and/or currency, usually through repeated tasks.

The term originates (for me personally, since this is my own glossary) from The Legend of Zelda (NES), where fountains exist with fairies that heal the player each time the player returns. By staying within a few screens of the one with the fountain, the player can fight nearby monsters, acquire their rupees, and return when their injuries warrant it.

Another example of a fountain would be the place in Beyond Good and Evil where newly loaded sections of the game world respawn breakable crates that may contain useful healing items. By crossing the boundary between the sections and enduring the loading screens over and over, the player who is low on health may regenerate it before facing the new challenges that lie ahead.

Although the gameplay aspect of working a fountain may seem repetitious, it often has the advantage of safely advancing the player's finances to obtain better items sooner than they would through normal adventuring.

Videogame Glossary : Beachhead

A beachhead is usually the first save point in a videogame, or the first place that a gamer can stop, catch their breath, heal, bank, restock, and/or relax.

In many modern games, there are introductory cinema cut scenes at the very beginning, often followed by immediate action and gameplay before the first opportunity to save the game is reached. Hence, establishing the beachhead is normally the main goal of the first gameplay session, to prevent having to repeat tasks like character creation, viewing the opening cut scenes, and replaying through the tutorial sections of the game.

Some games also have an autosave feature that may engage after the opening cut scenes or levels, and the player is usually notified of this with an onscreen message. A beachhead (and even the urgency of getting to one) is something that varies greatly from game to game depending on the design.

Videogame Glossary : Introduction

I've come to realize that as I've been playing videogames for the past 33 years, I've developed my own set of terms for things I experience in many of those games.

A search of the internet reveals that others have assembled more generic videogame glossaries, which can be useful for underestanding the common terms used by most gamers and in the games industry:

A retro-gamer's view from Recycled Gaming

A guide for unknowing parents at What They Play : A Parent's Guide To Gaming

A scholar's view at Half-Real

But I've got my own terms to add to the lexicon. Look for upcoming posts on this blog detailing these terms under the label "Videogame Glossary" as I remember them.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Three Free Xbox 360 Games

A co-worker of mine decided, after years of pledged fanboy loyalty to the Xbox brand and much deriding of Sony, the PS3, its price, and Metal Gear Solid 4, to trade in his XBox 360, controllers, and extensive game library (I'd estimate at least 10 games, possibly more, including last fall's big name titles like Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, Fable 2, Fallout 3 and previous hits like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4) for a Playstation 3, a controller, and three games.

Now, I hate to look a gift horse (I'll get to the gift part in a moment) in the mouth, but this trade boggles my mind. Over a thousand dollars worth of spending for $400-$500 worth of return. Gaming is an expensive hobby, but to be this fickle with it just makes it much worse.

The reasons he cited were twofold. One, that a lot more of his friends have PS3s and he could therefore play more online games with them. I guess that makes sense, but it's a helluva a price to pay to do it.

Second, he believes that he's played all of the Xbox 360 exclusives and it's time to move on to the PS3 exclusive titles. That assumption - that the 360 is done with exclusive games and content - could be easily disputed by a quick look at what little is already known about this year's 360 exclusives, nevermind the fact that Microsoft usually keeps a lot of their fall release plans quiet until the summer's E3 expo.

Whatever his reasons, there were some games in his library that were not worth trading in, because Gamestop (or Gamecrazy, wherever he went) would only offer fifty cents for them. So he brought them into work and generously gave three of them to me. I've had about two weeks with these games, and thus have had a chance to play them enough to see that I made out pretty good.

I played Prey first, and was blown away by the sheer quality of this title. In spite of my attentiveness to gaming history, I had never heard of this amazing game. When I first fired it up though, and saw the 3D Realms logo, I had a feeling I had started playing something special. I was right.

Prey is a first-person shooter telling the story of Native American Tommy, who along with his grandpa and girl, get swept aboard an alien spaceship that's here to eat us all. The twists on the FPS genre include spirit-walking (astral projection, useful for getting through force fields and deactivating them), and Super Mario Galaxy-esque gravity flipping, as well as Portal-esque portals.

I read up on the history of Prey on Wikipedia, and found out that its development was started in 1995, it was shown off at E3 shows in '97 and '98, went through at least three development iterations, finally getting released to the public in the summer of 2006 for PC as well as Xbox 360. Whew.

And here it is, 2009, and I'm playing it and having a blast. So much so that I finished it in just a few days (with some long gameplay sessions in there - it was like a good book I couldn't put down). The level design, character design, alien weapons, and other aspects like the flying exoskeleton pods and the lack of any real death in the game all made for a memorable experience. I thanked my fickle co-worker profusely after beating Prey.

Monster Madness : Battle for Suburbia
This top-down Gauntlet/Zombies Ate My Neighbors knock-off is the most poorly designed piece of trash I've yet seen on a modern day console. Clearly made for - well no one really - the gameplay involves 1-4 players fighting zombies and other cliched monsters through suburban landscapes riddled with objects to collect.

The camera is pretty bad, but only occasionally makes the game unplayable. There are invisible walls in strange places, such as on rooftops - you can go up on a rooftop, but there is an invisible wall at the top so you can't go down the other side. I encountered one such wall on a rooftop that, as I walked into it, pushed my character off of the roof. I found a building that, when I walked around it, was missing the back walls.

There were a few laughs to be had in the game's style, such as a loading screen tip that said "Your mom's a loading screen tip", but for the most part the adolescent jokes fell flat on this middle-aged gamer's sense of humor. One boss fight was against Bob Zombie, a stereotyped rastafarian who spoke with a Jamaican dialect and breathed smoke on the stereotyped nerdy character I was playing. So was it a take on Rob Zombie or Bob Marley? Your guess is as good as mine.

After playing one major chapter of the game, I put it away. It just wasn't fun. Nor polished.

Just Cause
I've only just gotten a little into Just Cause. It's a big - really BIG - sandbox Grand Theft Auto style game that takes place on a Latin American island nation. It's got vehicles, guns, main story missions, side missions, factions, and some cool new aspects like stunts (jumping off your moving car as it goes off a cliff and deploying your parachute, for example).

I'm having fun with it, but again it's so big that right now it's intimidating, and I'm not sure how varied the side missions are going to end up being. But it is indeed polished, highly playable, and has a style that works, so I think I'll be travelling around the beautifully rendered tropical islands in the game for some time.

So, for three free games, it looks like two of them are winners. I've seen Just Cause recently for less than $20 in the bargain bins of Circuit City, and I'm sure similar prices are to be found at Gamestop for that title as well as Prey. If you're looking for some cheap Xbox 360 thrills, and those games sound like your cup of tea, then go for it. Stay away from Monster Madness, though - it's not even worth "free".

Coolest DVD Packaging Ever

My favorite thing on television these days is the amazing cartoon known as The Venture Brothers, a Cartoon Network Adult Swim show that after three seasons just keeps getting better and better.

The aforementioned season three is about to come out on DVD, and look at the packaging:

Classic Atari 2600 cartridge packaging. Awesome.