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Gaming: March 2011’s Games

On time for once (and coming straight on the heels of February’s), here we have the March round-up posts. This month we kicked off with the books I read and now it’s time for the games I played:

Squashing twelve separate images into a 425x90 image is kind of difficult. Its also incredibly time-consuming, comprable to the amount of time it takes to write the entire post. In fact I spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time assembling the images for each blog post.

Images sources: Conan, Donkey Kong, Benny, Trip, Kane, a wizard, Liu Kang, Tommy, Nathan, Randy and Father Mother.

I think I’ve got am okay system in place now for gaming, but I’ll cover that in the goals section at the bottom of this post. Let’s get straight to the gaming then:

Conan (Xbox 360)

Progress: Played for two hours for Project Pile of Shame, abandoned.

I already blogged about this here. It’s okay.

Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

Progress: Five worlds in, now abandoned.

I couldn’t do it. In some respects I’m still as positive about the game as I was last month, in that Retro Studios have created a lovely-looking game that captures everything good about Rare’s original trilogy of Donkey Kong Country games while also adding the improvements and adjustments that are needed for a sequel released sixteen years after its most recent predecessor. However, in some very important respects the game does things that I do not and never have liked, and which wouldn’t necessarily have even been considered if this wasn’t coming from Nintendo.

This biggest issue is that the game still has lives. You collect life balloons throughout the levels and earn more through bonus areas and collectibles, and at first I had so many built up that they may as well have been irrelevant. Later on though things get much more difficult, and not just in a fun, challenging way. There are lots of cheap surprises and deaths from things you can’t anticipate until you’ve seen them at least once (or at least I couldn’t, perhaps I’m just getting old), meaning each of those is all but a mandatory point for deducting a life. Lose them all near the end of a level and you get a Game Over screen and the option to continue (and you can’t ever run out of continues). Choose to continue and you’re sent back to the hub screen to start the level over, with just a few spare lives.

It’s ridiculous. If you find a section so difficult that you get Game Over there’s no logical reason to make you replay the entire level with even fewer lives, so that by the time you reach the bit you’re struggling with you may only have a couple. It’s essentially a choice between replaying the whole level again and again each time you continue (wasting your time on bits you’ve already beaten) or going back to easier levels to stockpile lives again (wasting time on bits you’ve already beaten), neither of which directly help you with the bit you’re having difficulties on. Or you can just stop playing, which is what I did.

Poor checkpointing or stupid life systems like this are major bugbears of mine, as are frustratingly difficult games. I don’t find that kind of frustration fun, nor do I find much satisfaction in eventually beating them, and it’s for that reason I’ve not played Super Meat Boy beyond the trial and why I have little interest in playing Demon’s Souls. At least the difficulty of those games and Donkey Kong Country Returns are deliberate and carefully designed, unlike the system of lives. It’s a stupid throwback to the times when games were short arcade experiences built around limited playthroughs (possibly depending on how much money you were willing to spend).

Games like Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank demonstrated lives weren’t necessary for challenge back in the PlayStation 2 days and it’s disappointing to see developers still putting them in, particularly those from Nintendo and SEGA (though in the Mario games Nintendo have made lives as irrelevant as possible). They add nothing but the bad kind of frustration (if there’s even any other kind).

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Progress: Played the dwarf commoner origin story, ongoing.

I also blogged about this here though I didn’t really give my opinion. To be honest I played through such a tiny portion in March that I don’t think I could yet (or will be able to for some time). First impressions have been good though, it does seem like the spiritual successor to the classic Bioware games (especially the Baldur’s Gate series), just as Bioware said it would be.

Though I’ve yet to have a big party with any real options I do like the combat so far, which has that same style of auto-pause and party management that I always liked about Bioware’s classic RPGs and which I’ve missed in these days of realtime combat. I don’t know what that means for Dragon Age 2, which seems to have heavily modified the combat system in favour of something faster and with more spectacle, but it will be a long time before I’m in a position to play the sequel.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox 360)

Progress: Played several chapters, ongoing.

I blogged about this too, once based on what I played in March here and currently twice more in April (and you can access all current Enslaved posts through this tag link, which will also include any future posts).

Fallout 3 (PC)

Progress: Definitely an ongoing thing, and will be for quite some time.

When I looked back at how my play sessions differed across 2010 I pointed out how starting work had meant I’d dropped certain games I used to play regularly:

…prior to September the PC was where I would dip into one of several games that were essentially in permanent rotation, games like Fallout 3, The Sims 3 or one of the Left 4 Dead games, which are all either so vast or without a fixed ending that there’s always something to do, and it was also where I would emulate the occasional classic game. Losing free time to work has so far meant all that has stopped.

Last month I found some time to play The Sims 3 and in March I found some time for Fallout 3. In fact I’m considering always setting aside one of my four days off to playing one of them because I really do enjoy them and don’t want to just stop spending time with these games because I have less free time than I used to. These games are suited to dipping into a couple of times a month without major confusion, and with The Sims 3 in particularly there’s no reason that I should stop playing it until at least when The Sims 4 releases.

With Fallout 3 there’s another reason, which is that I really, really want to play Fallout: New Vegas (especially now that the Spoiler Warning gang are doing so). I can’t help thinking that if I did play that game it would mark the end of my time with Fallout 3, and as I’m still working on this current playthrough (which will include trying out all the extra content that I’ve still yet to play) I don’t want that to happen just yet. I have to finish Fallout 3 first, which will be harder if I never spend any time with it.

When I played in March I was in the middle of following Dad through Project Purity and onto Tranquility Lane, bits that I’m not that interested in seeing again but which I need to get through to keep the game moving. On this occasion I was heading back to Megaton across the bridge in the image above, having done so many, many times. This time though it was filled with mines that I don’t ever remember being there before, which is something I think I’d remember as I’m always crossing back and forth there. One mine set off another, which set off another and.. well, it hurt:

Though apparently they were the kind of mines that damage arms more severely than feet.

For all its flaws (and there are many, which Spoiler Warning covered last year), the way Fallout 3 is able to surprise after multiple replays is a definite strength and is one of the things that keeps me coming back (as well as the flexibility that allows it to be heavily modded).

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (PlayStation 3)

Progess: Completed the solo campaign, played no co-op or multiplayer.

This is the game I played immediately before Enslaved and which would have been a good candidate for the same style of quicker blog posts that has seen me already post about that game three times. It’s a short (under five hours) and ugly game, and I’m intrigued by the idea that a good deal of that ugliness was intentional. It’s not just the visuals – where the handheld camera aesthetic works really well at creating the atmosphere of gritty crudeness – but in every element of design.

Taking cover always leaves you exposed at least a little so you never feel safe, guns have wide target reticules that mean you miss often (IO have even added hit indicators to let you know when a shot actually connects), Kane and Lynch are horrible people who cut down innocents and policemen without comment, and all in all it’s just relentlessly horrible.

Depending on who you ask IO Interactive have either just made a bad game that deserves to be forgotten or they’ve deliberately made it one long (well, not that long) commentary on the state of shooters today (with this Five Players post and this Action Button review being good places to go for a more detailed exploration of that idea). On the one hand I want to agree because I have a lot of respect for IO Interactive from their Hitman games and it’s hard to believe that anybody could unintentionally make Kane & Lynch 2 so consistently bleak and unpleasant, but on the other hand it’s also hard to believe that any commercial developer would deliberately put out a game they expected most people to respond to with nothing but loathing.

The game is incredibly cheap at most places, and because of the reasons mentioned above I’d say it’s probably one of the more interesting games that released last year, in some respects worth playing ahead of a lot of other 2010 releases that are almost inarguably better games.

Magicka (PC - Steam)

Progress: Played up to the final chapter online with at least one other person, ongoing.

Magicka became something of a mini phenomenon among one of my online communities and a bunch of us all bought the game and played together. It’s a lot of fun, playing a Diablo-style action-RPG but with a unique spell-casting system. Basically you have a bunch of elements (fire, water, earth, etc.) which you combine in different ways and can then also cast in several different ways, creating a wide variety of different spells without the controls getting overwhelming. It works very well, even if most people are likely to settle on a few simple favourites rather than using every spell to its maximum potential.

It’s not a game that takes itself very seriously and is littered with pop culture references, both to games (such as King’s Quest) and television and film (in fact many of the references are from Star Wars, including the name of every chapter). If internet culture has picked up on a pop culture reference and created a meme out of it than it’s quite likely this game has it in there somewhere (I’ll let you figure out what you have to do to earn the ‘This is Magicka!” achievement). That kind of thing can be quite hit-and-miss, but Arrowhead Action Studios pull it off for the most part and it all helps present Magicka as a bit of fun.

Demo: Mortal Kombat (PlayStation 3)

The source image for this is ridiculously big at 7680×4320 pixels and 15MB, slowing down my image editor and crashing Firefox. All so I could shrink it down to 425×90 pixels and 12KB.

Progress: Played all the (short) way through as Scorpion, then tried out Sub Zero.

I was always more of a Mortal Kombat fan than Street Fighter, and considering I was a teenager back then I’d guess the blood and gore were a big part of why it was popular among my friends. I did also like the consistency of the controls that made it easier to play competently as any character without needing to spend a lot of time learning how they control (everybody had the same basic moves like uppercuts, roundhouse kicks and leg sweeps, with the special moves being the major thing that differed).

I also really liked the setting and the story around the game (even though the story wasn’t a big focus), the battle between the mortals and the invading force of the NetherRealm. As somebody who mostly plays solo and who values story and world-building over juggles, combos and the other things that competitive players love the world of Mortal Kombat genuinely appealed to me, more so than the very light story of Street Fighter or the wacky battle for the Mishima Zaibatsu that dominates the Tekken series (which didn’t come along until the PlayStation generation but which eclipsed both those other series, at least for a while).

It’s fair to say though that after the first few games the series dwindled into irrelevance (Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was probably the peak), not least because the PlayStation made 3D fighters all the rage and neither Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter were ever truly comfortable with that third dimension in the same way as other fighting games that were 3D from the start. I stopped with the fifth main entry, Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance. Perhaps the biggest resurgence for the series came with Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (it’s where I jumped back in), with the series riding somewhat on the coattails of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the DC roster, and which did a surprisingly good job of explaining the crossover in-universe (as well as why anybody could possibly win a fight against Superman).

The year after MK vs DCU came out saw the release of Street Fighter IV, and somehow Capcom managed to make Street Fighter relevant again (as well as fighting games in general), and now we have a new Mortal Kombat from the series’ reborn developer and people are excited about it. Using just the name ‘Mortal Kombat’, without any number or suffix, can be read as a statement of intent, that in many respects things are back to basics for the series. No 3D combat, no weapons, no multiple stances, just the things that people loved about the first few games, updated for 2011.

Based on the demo I’d say NetherRealm Studios have succeeded. Without having to look up any moves I was able to jump straight back into Scorpion and play him with the ease I always have, throwing spears and pulling off teleport punches and just having a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to playing the full thing, as is possibly apparent from the way I’ve just written about five hundred words on a little bit of time with the demo.

Prey (Xbox 360)

Progress: Played for two hours for Project Pile of Shame, will likely resume.

I shared my opinion on my two hours with the game here.

Resistance: Fall of Man (PlayStation 3)

Progress: Very little, simply playing a couple of levels co-op. Abandoned.

My nephew was looking for something new for us to play co-op and the first Resistance game falls within what I feel is acceptable for him to play, though I didn’t expect it would hold his interest. That proved to be correct as we didn’t play long before he drifted away, and I’m fine with that as it’s not a game I like too much. Resistance: Fall of Man is just fairly medicore, and while Resistance 2 lost a lot of the original’s identity it at least played better and demonstrated that Insomniac are willing to make big changes if they feel the series needs it, which makes Resistance 3 a more interesting proposition than a lot of shooter sequels (or shameless Call of Duty imitators).

Demo: WWE All-Stars (Xbox 360)

My interest in wrestling started with video games, specifically WCW/nWo Revenge on the N64, which was fantastic with four players and which ate up a lot of time during my school days. Very few characters had any kind of voice, and for somebody who had never seen any wrestling most lacked personality. There was one in particular who really stood out though: ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. His taunt was a big strut that ended with his trademark ‘Ooohhhh Yeeaaaaah’, and while there were better wrestlers in the game (Scott Steiner may in fact have been the game’s best) Macho was the one who stuck with me and I even used Macho Man as an internet username for many years.

For that reason I’m almost obligated to buy this game because Macho is on the roster (and the cover, though for some reason he’s not the focus). Sadly he’s not playable in the demo, which gives you Ultimate Warrior for the Legends and Rey Mysterio Jr. for the Superstars.

It’s a lot more slick than the Smackdown games (which often show the clunkiness that comes from a game that still seems to use a lot of assets from the PlayStation 1 days), everything flows a little better and there are flashy slow-mo finishers, shockwaves sent out after a major move, and overall I’d say the exaggerated presentation and visuals is more appealing than the realism of the Smackdown games. Combat is pretty simple but in a good way, with every move seemingly having a counter (which the legacy animations of the Smackdown games still don’t all support), and it looks like counters are where a lot of the depth is going to come from.

By the sounds of it though the create mode (the strongest draw for me) is very limited when it comes to choosing moves, as even in the demo it says how you just pick a moveset from the four styles, and every character already in the game draws from those same four also, with signatures/finishers being the main differences. Complex visual customisation to make somebody who plays exactly like everybody else isn’t particularly appealing.

So yeah, I’d basically be buying it for an official Macho Man and a few hours of fun, which puts it way down the purchase list.

Zeno Clash (PC - Steam)

I’ve already blogged about this here. It’s weird, it’s good.

*****

March Verdict

Quality – March was more of a mixed bag for quality. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is probably a bad game, regardless of if it’s intentionally so, while Conan, WWE All Stars and Resistance: Fall of Man are all fairly average. I’d say everything else was good though.

Quantity – I spent a fair amount of time gaming this month, covering ten games played and two demos. I only completed two of them (and the demos, as much as that counts), deliberately gave up on another three and am still working on the other five, two of which (Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3) are very long-term things that aren’t going to be finished with for some time.

Timeliness – This month’s releases spread from the distant days of 2006 (Prey) through every year since, all the way up to genuine 2011 release Magicka and the two 2011 demos. I’m currently making headway on working through maybe the last 2009 release I really want to play (Dragon Age: Origins) and the remaining big 2010 releases (which I might even put into a blog post later on).

Platform Bias – All three consoles had some playtime again this month, as did the PC. That’s always nice.

NewnessFallout 3 was the one major instance this month where I was playing something I’ve played before (in fact I’ve run through that section of the game three times now), but as I mentioned above I’m doing that to get to the new content that came with the Game of the Year edition. There was also the brief play of Resistance: Fall of Man, but that hardly counts.

Goals – I think I’ve got a reasonably decent arrangement at the moment and I’d like to stick to that. Essentially it means spending two days of every eight on a new game (at the time of writing it’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), one on Dragon Age: Origins (though if I have nothing else that can also qualify as the new game), and the final day on one of the timesinks (The Sims 3 or Fallout 3).  It should be fairly easy to stick to that.

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