Sunday, December 25, 2011

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic review - "I have a bad feeling about this."

I remember a time in my life when I relished all things Star WarsStar Wars toys, Star Wars computer games, Star Wars Monopoly. It was a romantic period when Episodes I, II and III had yet to be made, before George Lucas himself had to finally tarnish our once gilded perceptions of his brilliant creation. It wasn’t some monumental event or epiphany that dulled my Star Wars fervor. I think I just grew up and became a more cynical—I mean, critical—person.

Anyway, I finally finished the Xbox version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I suppose it’s time I try and write up my review. So here goes.

KOTOR is supposed to be a game about saving or conquering the galaxy. It’s supposed to be about traveling to remote planets and participating in a fantasy adventure with a ragtag band of allies. Whether or not it succeeds along these lines is sometimes up to the player and depends upon how well they are either able or willing to suspend their disbelief.

The game is also supposed to be about following a moral path and slowly crafting the story of a hero or villain based on one’s choice of available words and actions. The game I played, however, was like taking, constantly failing and constantly re-taking a fifty-hour series of multiple-choice personality tests prepared by an emotionally challenged computer programmer—or SmarterChild. It’s like playing Apples to Apples, an otherwise fantastic game, with a group of strangers who you come to find out have no sense of irony or sarcasm.

I suppose my first clue that things would be weird was early on in the game when I found my character, Roq Bandai (I’m so awesome at naming characters), agreeing to stand in as a dance audition partner for some random alien babe in a bar—er … sorry, cantina. The dialogue cut away to a ridiculously awkward animation segment, during which my character was tasked with selecting what kind of corresponding motion to make. The girl had sort of prepped me and I think warned me not to risk attempting any complex moves too early lest I trip up and make her look stupid in front of the talent agent. So I tried my best to lay down the best selection of dance options, but on my third input prompt—thinking it might just be the dazzling finale this so far tame-looking audition needed—I told my character to move in circles around my partner. It didn’t quite dazzle anybody. The girl accused me of purposely sabotaging her performance, and I guess the game did the same because it immediately let me know it had given me an undisclosed number of Dark Side points. And here I was just trying to help. Mind you, this whole encounter happened while I was supposed to be figuring out how to rescue a captive Jedi master so that we could get off the planet and resume the task of winning the war against the evil Sith empire. So I reloaded my previous saved game and I don’t remember if it took one or two more tries, but I eventually got the sequence of inputs right and moved on.

I found this same basic scenario repeated ad nauseam throughout the entire game. The game would present me with some kind of increasingly complex challenge whereby I would either fail or succeed based on my selection of dialogue options. This wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, if the game ever gave me an understandable clue as to why I had failed or succeeded. One time I was trying to help a guy in the desert get disentangled from a series of rigged-to-explode droids by hacking into a robot and performing honest-to-God text-based math puzzles. There is absolutely nothing in the game that helps the player learn how to, out of the blue, identify complex number sequences, some of which I could not figure out. I felt like an idiot. Thanks, KOTOR.

During a side quest much later in the game I found myself acting as a lawyer for some old man who was on trial for murdering his lover. I must have gone through that entire trial about 20 times before I got the judges to find the guy innocent, which is the outcome I wanted. I’ll admit I’ve thrown my controller down in games. If I die for the umpteenth time on some blasted Super Mario World castle level, I might get angry. But I don’t think I’ve ever gotten genuinely pissed off at a game due to frustrating dialogue navigation.

Unfortunately, the game’s combat proved just as unintuitive. I wanted to understand the game’s mechanics. I really did. I read the manual and tried to wrap my head around its interconnected systems of skills, attributes, saving throws and the almighty random-number generation. In my research I came to discover that just about everything in the game—every blaster fire, every lightsaber swing and every force-manipulated lightning bolt—was determined by a virtual 20-sided die roll. I guess it’s a Dungeons and Dragons thing, except the game doesn't actually let the player participate in any of this. I never got to see what numbers were rolled, only whether or not something landed or missed. There's sometimes too much happening on screen at once to keep track of it all.

That's because all of the combat happens in real time. As soon as someone gets hostile, it’s on. The player could theoretically just put the controller down and watch the game randomly generate attack and defense sequences for each member in the player’s party. The player might even win the battle. What the player is supposed to do, on the other hand, is micro-manage these inputs by constantly pausing and un-pausing and switching characters and monitoring everybody’s status. While the battle itself might take 20 seconds in real time, the act of pausing and managing the combat might stretch it to about a minute-and-a-half affair. It’s clunky but it works. There’s an amusing delay between input and action that I suppose is necessary for synchronizing all those turn-based actions. It can be like throwing a bunch of quarters around the carpet, one at a time, and watching your cat react in astonishment at each new phenomenon.

It’s amazing they got a tabletop simulator to look so much like an action game, but I can see why BioWare ditched the turn-based stuff altogether in their next game, Jade Empire. This game wanted to have to have its Tarisian ale and drink it too. I actually thought the combat was kind of fun until the end of the game, which was one giant dungeon crawl with fight after fight after tiresome fight, and I realized the combat had just been a welcome distraction from wandering around such a drab, boring environment.

Maybe I should segue here into my petty gripe, which is that the graphics, by today’s standards, are pretty crappy. I’d say they’ve aged about as well as Mark Hamill’s skin. Navigating through most of the game world felt about as exciting as wandering through the corridors in Wolfenstein 3D. And the Star Wars art style just didn’t make for a very aesthetically appealing world.

I imagine there are benefits to working within an established franchise universe. People like to see things that are recognizable and referential to their pop-culture interests. A Star Wars RPG does have some neat things going for it, even little things like customizing one’s lightsaber. But after a while, a stingily guarded franchise such as Star Wars can get pretty stale and repetitive pretty quickly. Just because the first Star Wars movie had a memorable scene introducing the inconic Mos Eisley cantina, why does every location in the Star Wars universe have to have an identical looking cantina and why can’t they call it something besides a cantina? It’s called the Star Wars “universe” for crying out loud! Why does it have to be stuck in 1977?

It wasn’t a completely bad experience. I mean, let’s not forget this. After waffling for the first quarter of the game regarding whether or not I wanted to be good, bad or ugly, I decided to try and walk the straight and narrow. My first playthrough as Roq Bandai—a purple lightsaber wielder—was ultimately a story of (clumsy) love and redemption, also one of a giant amnesia-related plot twist. I even got the girl. Then I replayed the last chapter as a total psychopath to get a taste of the dark side outcome. The fact that BioWare was able to craft a singular game story based on these wildly different moral choices is an interesting achievement, and I wonder very much how that approach will inform their soon-to-launch MMO endeavor. But I think I might be done with BioWare games.

(Final Recommendation: If anyone still happens to be interested in original Xbox games, I would recommend they skip KOTOR and go straight to Jade Empire, which was a stronger game set in a more interesting universe. It also takes half the time to finish, and I personally think that’s a good thing.)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic gets two out of four stars. I don't have a graphic, so use your imagination.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Signature moments

This is interesting. The Internet lords over at have seen fit to unveil a new list of the top 100 video game moments. It's ... interesting, especially the first 40 percent of the list, which includes some relatively obscure titles—Deadly Premonition, OutRun 2, Wild ARMs, 3D Monster Maze. Not quite what I was expecting. Which is fine.

Personally, I love lists. Can't get enough of them. They can be a great instigator for conversations and voicing disagreements. I learned long ago that you can't take these things very seriously. Except when you do, and it's great. In 1998, right before I turned 16, I watched a special CBS presentation of the American Film Institute's 100 Years 100 Films. I then spent the next 10 years tracking down and watching copies of each film on the list I'd never seen. By the time time I finished, of course, I was older and better able to appreciate that the esteemed connoisuers of celluloid over at the AFI offices were neither the be-all nor the end-all of critical opinion. Even a list 100 titles long can have some crucial missing components. Still, it creates a way to celebrate whatever it is we love about whatever it is we're listing.

So the idea of talking about video game moments seems like a fitting idea. Isn't that what all these different games look to provide—memorable moments? I would like to think so. But then I actually browse through the list, and suddenly I'm not so sure.

Some of the items on the list commemorate particular game levels or locations—or seeing a particular game world for the first time and getting that wow factor. Other items mark the first time the player performs a particular game mechanic, like drifting in Ridge Racer or rocket jumping in Quake. And then there are the plot spoilers, such as ... Aerith dies. So sad.

I think part of the problem is the list makers felt compelled to represent certain seminal games, and in doing so either boiled their overall greatness into one big vague moment or simply plucked out one of many interconnected game elements—usually the wrong one.

Anyway, I don't intend to dig too deeply into the final list, only to contend one particular choice.

I'm talking about greatest moment #76, "Billie Jean" from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
"Grand Theft Auto has always been the cool video game, the one that reached out and appealed to a mass audience. But GTA has never been cooler than when you first cruised the streets of Vice City at night, tuned into Flash FM, and heard the opening bars of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. It pulled you back in time to the eighties, when Jackson was still the King of Pop and neon-pastels were still fashionable. It underscored your first experiences of the environment: the garishly-lit beach-front hotels and discos, the insistent dealers and prostitutes, and the squalor hidden down backstreets. This was Vice City, and it was yours for the taking."
"Billie Jean," is that really your musical selection? Nice attempt, ign, but no. That song is still on the damn radio. You might just as well be driving down the streets of present-day Spokane, Washington, listening to Michael Jackson. That song is so ubiquitous it doesn't transport anyone to anywhere. No, the greatest moment of that classic GTA game is cruising the streets of Vice City in a stolen Ferrari imitation car, on a clear sunny day, and ramming your vehicle at full speed into an oncoming motorcyclist. Watch the rider go flying (it's so wrong and yet it feels so right) as the in-game car stereo blasts into the chorus of this song.

The title says it all. If there's any standout track from the Vice City soundtrack that crystalizes the wild 80s, it's this signature single from mascaraed hair band Autograph. You will feel the need for speed and you will bang your head all the way to your drug-deal destination on the other side of the Starfish Island bridge. Or you'll listen to those lyrics, "For every minute I have to work, I need a minute of play," and you'll suddenly ask yourself—why the rush? This cocaine empire can wait while I go throw some hand grenades into a random busy intersection. Turn it up!

(Final Fun Fact: I admit I might be a little biased in my opinion. Go ahead and watch that video again. While you're enjoying the music, make note of the band's bass player, Randy Rand. That's my mom's cousin.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Paperboy 2 review - "Right in the mailbox!"

After reflecting on my two previous posts that had a high word count and very little in the way of simply talking about video games, I decided to switch gears (bicycle reference there) for this post and write a game review. One of my friends recently reminded me of an excellent video game review site, Action Button Dot Net, which since I last visited seems to have been given an absolutely horrid but somehow appropriate visual overhaul (appropriate in the sense that humor is an understandable coping mechanism for someone trying to look like they’re not really taking their work seriously, when in fact that someone probably takes what they are doing extremely seriously). Basically, the funky background—which comes off like an inside joke—makes the text purposefully difficult to read. It’s kind of funny and kind of unfortunate, because the articles on the site are worth reading.

One thing I really like about the site is its incorporation of the Roger Ebert four-star rating system for reviewing games. It really is the best rating system (I give it four stars), hands-down superior to the 10-point score employed by most game journalism publications, as well as that troublesome thing we call Metacritic. Why do I like it? It’s more intuitive. A four-star rating system (with the allowance of half-stars) seems to better acknowledge the subjective nature of critical exposition. We’re expressing our opinions and observations of wildly different artifacts, not grading term papers. Anyway, that’s the system I’m using and if you don’t like it I don’t care. No stars for you!

Now, about that review.

"Hey, Mr. Wilson!"

Ever have one of those chaotic days at work where it feels like everything that can go wrong goes wrong and nobody will just let you do your stinking job? Try getting through a week of Paperboy 2, a game I’ve been fondly revisiting the past few days on my Sega Genesis. (From looking at some YouTube videos I can say the Genesis version is quite distinct from its SNES and NES counterparts—and there were several other versions still. I would wager to use the word “superior,” but I wouldn’t be speaking from experience. I will say the Genesis version appears to play much faster and has speech sound clips that are ... just ... awesome.)

This early 1990s sequel didn’t deviate too much from the Atari arcade original, a game I never played, partly because it came out in 1984 (the same year I turned two). In the game the player assumes control of a bicycle-riding newspaper delivery boy or girl. The primary objective of the game is to guide the avatar through a suburban neighborhood and successfully deliver The Daily Sun newspaper to all subscribing residences, hopefully making it in one piece to the bonus obstacle training course at the end of the last block. This seemingly simple task is made astoundingly difficult due to all manner of hazards, including but by no means limited to punk skateboarders, runaway baby carriages and random swarms of bees that will knock the biker on his or her ass and cost the player a valuable life. Even running into a curb will crash the bike.

The secondary goal is to cause as much mischief as possible, à la Dennis the Menace. In other words, feel free to knock that cute elderly couple off their porch swing with a spare newspaper. Try aiming for that jacked-up automobile in the driveway so that it falls on the dude’s face underneath, and break one of his house windows while you’re at it—assuming he’s a non-subscriber. One could also use their throwing skills to try and stop said runaway baby carriage or thwart the occasional convenience store robbery, good deeds that might end up on the front page of tomorrow’s morning edition.

Don’t get the wrong idea, however. This game, unlike another game I’m still trudging through, has nothing to do with morality. It’s all about the points, and hitting one target—be it that guy taking out the trash or his charging Dalmatian—registers the same 100 point score as any other. But the player cannot just toss and toss without consequence due to the limited number of papers on hand, tallied nicely at the top of the screen. To replenish the supply the player will need to be on the lookout for extra paper bundles around the block, sometimes situated in dangerous-to-navigate places. It creates an excellent little risk-reward dynamic. The player can try and play it safe in the street, but the lure of points, thrills and sometimes sheer necessity will draw the player closer to the dangers of people’s front yards.

"Every day, it's a gettin' closer..."

What I love about this game is how much different it feels after maybe an hour or so of play. Stepping cold into this game isn’t easy—it’s like, learning to ride a bike? Actually, it’s rather like learning to ride a bike. I can still remember when I was probably five or six years old and I first learned how to ride my bicycle sans training wheels. There’s a definite learning curve in terms of trusting one’s balance and the instincts of when to turn the handlebars and by how much. Some time not long after I thought I had figured it all out—meaning I was perfectly willing to take off on my bike without having dad spot me for the first few feet (that Kodac moment probably does get old for the proud parents after a little while)—my grandmother came over to our house to visit, and my mom told me to show off my riding skills. This will be a piece of cake, I thought. And so I took off down the driveway, maybe beamed at my grandma over on the sidelines and for some reason got mentally tripped up at the prospect of that driveway fence about ten feet in front of me. I’d avoided it probably tens of times already but this time the proper kinetic response didn’t quite register and, at any rate, I didn’t have the wherewithal to stop myself from slamming into that fence.

This is basically the same thing that will happen to a first-time player of Paperboy 2. Inevitably they’ll be trying to avoid a monster pickup truck barreling down the street and swerve right into a picket fence, or a sunbather, or a house. There’s some finesse to the controlling of the bike that is probably never mastered but definitely better subjugated over time. And just when the player thinks they are improving—smash! One thing the player quickly realizes is that there is no way to stop, only to slow down and move at a snail’s pace. This is accomplished, intuitively, by pressing down on the directional pad. Pressing up, of course, accelerates the paperboy to a maximum velocity, which when played at with some level of skill rewards the speedy player with the equivalent gratification of a Mario speed run (also, hitting ramps sends the player avatar on a wondrous moon-gravity journey that never quite loses its excitement). Braking, on the other hand, is necessary, and also satisfying. The friction of slowing is near perfect, as is the accompanying rubber-skidding sound effect. The timid player might actually be able to get through the first couple of days on the easy setting with his or her finger jammed down on the brake button (I can’t imagine how boring this would be), but the developers countered this by programming a swarm of bees that will essentially chase the player who moves too slowly for too long. It’s the only hazard that sneaks up from behind the player, a phenomenon that kicks in more quickly as the week progresses.

Staying alive is still only half the challenge, the other being to carry out the actual task of delivering newspapers. Each subscribing house essentially has two targets, one being a doormat that earns the regular 100 points, the other being a tiny mailbox that nets a bonus 150 for each one hit (Seriously, I don’t even bother with the doormats). The act of throwing is kept thankfully simple with the press of a button. The A button throws left and the B button throws right (the C button, by the way, performs a bunny hop, useful for clearing hedges, curbsides and whatnot). There is no variation in the speed or trajectory of throws. Each thrown newspaper flies from the deliverer’s hand exactly the same. Because the neighborhood blocks are shown from an isometric perspective, it’s all about learning the invisible diagonal line that will hit the target. With so many other potential objects moving, it can sometimes be like threading a needle to hit that mailbox.

Again, delivering actual papers is vitally important, part of the game’s integral system of reward and punishment. As long as the player delivers to the subscriber’s mailbox or doormat—and doesn’t smash any of its windows or other property—those residents will remain complacent, loyal customers. In other words, the newspaper employee can unleash total havoc on the surrounding neighborhood, have their unscrupulous exploits printed in bold headlines on the very product being delivered. No worries. Not until they are the ones replacing a broken porch vase will they cancel their subscription—and if that isn’t a spot-on parable for consumer complacency, I don’t know what is.

The finer points

While playing I made a deliberate effort to test the point system when smashing house windows. This is great. If the player smashes the window of a non-subscribing residence, that’s 100 points. If the player smashes the window of a subscriber’s house, that residence automatically becomes a nonsubscriber and no points are awarded for hitting that particular object. But, if one second later the player throws another paper and breaks another window on the same house—now an unsubscribing residence, that throw is worth 100 points. I love it! The player can regain subscribers by making a perfect delivery to all current subscribers on a later day, but only one residence will re-subscribe at a time. If a player loses all subscribers the game is over (although most players will lose by crashing too many times).

Another thing this game does remarkably well is to create a balance of challenging gameplay and casual entertainment. The game’s three selectable modes of difficulty are three different paper routes: Easy Street, Medium Way and Hard Road. Each successive route is longer, more elaborate and more immediately chaotic. Each route begins on a Monday, and each new day until Sunday—like the New York Times crossword puzzle—presents increasing challenge. New obstacles like fire hydrants and flamingo ornaments materialize on sidewalks and lawns overnight (and I assume all of the extra Sunday drivers are on their way to church).

Basically, playing Paperboy 2 is like playing pinball. The player starts with three lives—like three pinballs, if you will. The goal is to make those lives last as long as possible, ideally from Monday through Sunday. Getting to the bonus training course at the end of each delivery day is like getting the pinball machine’s multiball round, and making it to the course finish line—one of the best ways to rack up points—is hitting the jackpot. Also like pinball, there is a way to collect an extra life (ball), but this requires making a perfect delivery to all original subscribers. The drawback is that this is usually next to impossible after the first couple days, or whenever the attrition of lost subscribers becomes too sizable to recover. The ultimate playthrough would be to start on Monday of Easy Street and survive through Sunday of Hard Road. I don’t even know what happens when you finish a week on Hard Road, because if there is one recurring obstacle more (cheaply) difficult to avoid than any other, it's the damn cars that run crosswise at the intersections between blocks! Sometimes, too, I simply end up losing a life on the first block of the very first day on easy, which in pinball is like losing your first ball within seconds. It happens. It sucks. Oh well.

The stuff of dreams

Aesthetically, Paperboy 2 presents the suburbs as the one of the scariest, most threatening environments imaginable, with some macabre elements—sewer monsters, ghosts, ravens—thrown in for good measure (I’m almost convinced there was some cross influence going on between the Paperboy games and the brilliant, short-lived television series Eerie, Indiana). George A. Romero did something similar with the Night of the Living Dead—using zombies as a vehicle to capture that latent fear that one’s next-door neighbors are the true dangers of the world. I never had a paper route growing up but my best friend did, and I remember he had his own horror story of being chased down the street one morning by some angry or perhaps mentally-disturbed transient with a Jimmy Hendrix afro.

For me, however, this game does bear resemblance to the theme of a long-recurring nightmare, in which I’m essentially panicked behind the wheel of a speeding automobile, unable for whatever reason to stop or slow down and about to crash into something right when I wake up in a cold sweat. I’m beginning to wonder if that early embarrassing bicycle spill in front of my grandmother did a bigger number on my psyche than I thought. In that case, I think Paperboy 2 might be a great means of therapy, both for myself and traumatized paper route veterans everywhere.

(Final Note: I at least hope that after the last print newspaper has disappeared we will still be able to play paper-delivery simulation applications on our iPads.)

Paperboy 2 gets three-and-a-half out of four stars.