Archive for the ‘gaming’ Category

GameSpite Quarterly Interview: Richard Honeywood on The Rise of Square Localization

Richard Honeywood Interview

In January 2011, I conducted a series of email interviews with Richard Honeywood, who worked at Square and Square Enix from 1997 to 2007. Honeywood contributed immensely to the development of localization practices at Square, building up a team of translators and building tools that are still relevant to the industry today. The bones of this interview appear in an article I wrote, “This Guy Are Sick: The Rise of Square Localization,” for GameSpite Quarterly 8. It was also published on 1UP.com. Please read it, and think about buying a copy of GSQ8, which chronicles the history of Sony’s Playstation over the course of nearly 450 pages. Thanks again to Richard for giving me such a wealth of information. Writing an article with the information he gave me consumed my life for weeks and was far and away the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on. The full interview is presented below.

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Machimarium: A Robot Love Story

This is Machinarium.

As a child of the point-and-click adventure era, I love Telltale Games. Yet I have an embarrassing confession to make: I haven’t played a single one of their modern 3D revivals. I’ll get around to Sam & Max and Monkey Island eventually–the original games are near and dear enough to my heart to guarantee that. But I love Telltale for their steadfast devotion to adventure games. They have almost singlehandedly breathed fresh life into the genre, and without their successful experiment in episodic point-and-click adventures, independent projects like Machinarium may never have been made. And that would be a tragedy, because Machinarium is a quiet masterpiece.

Developed in Flash by Czech studio Amanita Design, Machinarium begins with a basic groundwork of accessible, logical puzzles and then surrounds them with a lush and vibrant world, dripping with life and detail in its characters and environs. Or, perhaps there’s not life, but there’s indeed sentience–every character, from the intrepid hero to the troublesome owl, is a robot, just a small part of a thriving steampunk ecosystem. Without its incredibly detailed, textured hand-drawn artwork Machinarium would be a very different game indeed.

The art drew me in, of course, and it’s what kept me playing, eager to make it to the next screen and pore over the background, taking in each little touch in the new area. Like the best point-and-click adventures, though, Machinarium handles narrative wonderfully, but in its own unique way. Like a classic cartoon, Machinarium eschews dialogue in favor of thought bubbles, where images pop up to flesh out plot points and character motivations.

The game also follows the logic of a cartoon–there are some mean bad guys who have treated our hero unfairly, and as we help him follow in their tracks, we gradually learn more about him and more about his enemies. They’re out to create mayhem for kicks, and he seems to want to stop them. But as we conquer each new area and move closer to the hero’s origin, a new piece of the story fits into place, and suddenly the entire thing gains a new sense of heft and meaning.

He perseveres for love, of course. What else?

A robot love storyDialogue or voice acting would likely undermine the power of this robot romance, but somehow the charming sound design, character animations and thought bubbles add up to something downright sweet. Though love gives our hero momentum in the second half, it’s almost unnecessary–the rest of the world is so charming it’s a delight to interact with each NPC to see how they’ll behave or what key item they have to offer (or demand).

Machinarium may not be laugh-out-loud funny in a Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer way, but I challenge you to spend more than a few minutes at a time without grinning. It will be tough, unless you’re stuck on a particularly obstinate puzzle. Though nearly all of them are logical, a few were obscure enough to make me dip into the game’s built-in hint book. Another guilty omission: I grew up playing everything from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to Hugo’s House of Horrors, but I’ve always been pretty terrible at adventure game puzzles. The few that stumped me in Machinarium may be a cake walk for those with godlike critical thinking skills.

The clever design of Machinarium’s hint book actually helped me complete at least half a dozen puzzles without ever giving me the solution. It acted like a cheerleader for me, since every time I was ready to give up it stood in my path as if to say “Do you really want to give up?” Turns out I didn’t. By locking the solutions away behind a mini-game, the developers give you ample opportunity to pull your beleaguered brain up by its bootstraps, renew your will and press on towards the solution.

Even though it’s been over a month since I finished Machinarium, little bits and pieces regularly pop up in my mind: a snippet of amazing background music here, an awesome wrench-bodied robot there. When I realized that it was essentially a quieter, more subtle version of Spike Jonze’s robot love story I’m Here, I couldn’t resist the connection. Play Machinarium. It’s available on Steam, a platform on which it’s easier to buy games than it is to resist them. Wait for a sale, if you must, but buy it, both to support the developer and play the game. Your heart will thank you for it.

Mario Galaxy 2 and the Case of the Stolen FunkLord

Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy 2 may be a bastion of creativity and fresh ideas, a wealth of originality crammed into a lovingly-crafted 3D platformer.  But behind that creativity lies an insidious case of theft.  Nintendo clearly poured so much effort into coming up with new ideas, when it came to a chubby-space-faring guide, they had to reach back into gaming’s past for inspiration.  And so we were given Mario’s new guide, Lubba, born from another blobular adventurer — though obviously a much more brodacious one.

Dat's Earl

Total bummer, Nintendo.  Total bummer.

Charting a Couse For High Adventure

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Cinema as a form of entertainment has been around for about a century, now, though its constant evolution has ensured that the films of 2010 don’t look or work much like the films of 1950. The way movies convey drama, for instance, has evolved considerably in the past fifty years, thanks in large part to the changes in camera technology.

Take Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, for example. The film derives its absolutely incredible intensity from hand-held camerawork, moving in so close to the characters that its impossible not to feel tightly linked to every moment that plays out on the screen. Scenes filmed in the cramped confines of compact cars never betray the fact that a camera is in the midst of actors ducking in and out of shots with precise timing, and as a result it’s one of the most immersive examples of cinematography in movie history. By being invisible, the camera performs miracles.

Which brings us to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a game that hews closer to the realm of Hollywood high adventure than perhaps any video game since the medium was born. Nathan Drake’s globe-spanning, Indiana Jonesian adventure comes alive with beautiful, immaculately-detailed environments, delightful character interaction, and one unbelievable set piece after another. But like Cuarón’s Children of Men, the real marvel is at work behind the scenes — Uncharted 2 is such a perfectly designed video game, it comes closer to achieving the storytelling power of the movies than I could have possibly expected.

Despite the limited speed of the Playstation 3′s Blu-Ray drive, Uncharted 2 continuously streams its lush world with nary a hitch, and loading screens only show up between clearly defined sections or episodes of the game.  Even the most exciting moments of powerfully cinematic games like Mass Effect 2 take a break to load with some frequency; not Uncharted 2Among Thieves’ train section illustrates Naughty Dog’s development chops, standing out as the most breathtaking moment of a game filled with unbelievable spectacles; the jungle streams in seamlessly, the train jerks and groans along its track, the enemies advance through boxcars to close in on Drake’s position — and it never once stutters.

This is the best train of all the trains.

Essentially, what we’re talking about is momentum, and a lot of it.  And while the train chapter of the game is probably the most obviously wowing, I found myself more impressed by the environmental changes Naughty Dog could pull off while still leaving Drake’s actions completely in the hands of the player.  Last generation, fluidly animated cinematic cutscenes in games were the method of choice to convey over-the-top dramatic moments, and they were often aided by quick time events to keep the player involved.  Just think of God of War II’s intense final battle against Zeus, or Resident Evil 4′s knife fight against Krauser.  Both used cinematics to do things with camera angles and character animation you wouldn’t usually see in the directly controllable portions of the game.  But in Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog affects massive changes to their environments without a single second of hesitation.  One second Drake is hiding behind a desk in an office building, firing at a crew of mercenaries — the next second he’s staggering to retain his balance as the building begins to crumble and tip over.  Full player control?  Still there.

Every second is made all the more impressive by the character animation, no doubt bolstered by a fantastic motion capture crew.  When Uncharted 2 does transition to cutscenes, it happens so instantly they retain that essence of seamlessness — it feels like the camera has just taken control for a moment.  Other games employ much more obvious triggers for cutscenes that suddenly find your character in a different position than you’d been just moments before, when in control.  But Uncharted 2 makes it all seem natural and authentic, a testament to the balance between storytelling and interactivity Naughty Dog has created.  Games in the future may trend closer to being movies with bits and pieces of interactivity (Heavy Rain springs to mind), but if anything finds a better mesh of cinema and game, it’ll likely be Uncharted 3.  Naughty Dog has taken the best pieces of bombastic high adventure film and incorporated it into a compelling video game experience, without sacrificing the power of player control.  It’s like being guided through the coolest movie ever.  And that is good game design.

In the Moment: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2

I haven’t played every game Bioware has created — in fact, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect are the only ones I’ve spent much time with — but I understand their pedigree.  They consistently produce some of the most sophisticated, complex western RPGs on the market, game where characters have character, where plots have intrigue and adventure.

Which is what makes most of their games so good…but on the surface, they’re often a bit of a mess.  The original Mass Effect is a perfect example: some janky animation and framerate issues popped up from time to time.  And, of course, there were those elevators.  And the horribly clunky inventory.  For the most part, their games are awesome in spite of technical flaws.

But with Mass Effect 2, Bioware may have, for the first time, created a game that plays just as well as it lays out a feast of roleplaying possibilities.  In practically every way, it’s an improvement on its predecessor.  Streamlined, fast-paced, in some ways simplified.  And while I’d definitely play it over the original in a heartbeat, there are still a few elements I miss from the first Mass Effect.

Pouring one out for those abandoned mechanics

1. Weapon and ammo customizationMass Effect 2 takes ammo in a radically different direction; weapons no longer overheat, they have clips like typical modern-day weaponry.  Ammo is no longer a limitless resource that can be specially customized to alter the potential of a gun.  It’s the same for every weapon, and ammo types have now been relegated to character abilities.

Fire ammo, armor-piercing ammo, etc. must be equipped manually, and thus can no longer be used at will by every character class in the game.  This also eliminates quite a few ammo varieties, such as the massive explosive rounds or hammerhead rounds of Mass Effect.  It’s all in the interest of speeding up the combat and keeping the game out of the menu system, and the ammo variants still in place as character abilities are just as fun to use as they were before.  But I still miss that progression through the ranks of upgradeable ammo, finding mk. 7 hammerhead rounds that could blow a Krogan off his feet, or the toxic rounds that would melt any poor bastard in a matter of seconds.

mass-effect-pcinventoryThe same holds true for the weaponry.  Doing away with an accuracy statistic, thereby cutting out that “roll of the dice” RPG feel of Mass Effect, eliminates the question of whether or not you’re actually going to hit something if you aim at it properly.  This is absolutely a good thing.

However, the loot-based item system made hunting for new and better weapons a lot of fun, and created a sense of character progression the sequel doesn’t really seem to have.  There are upgrades to increase the power of a weapon class by 10, 20, 30 percent, and so on, but it’s hardly the same as finding that new shotgun with an insane damage stat.  Armor, too; remember how exciting it was to buy that armor with so much shielding you could step out into direct fire without breaking a sweat?

There are a few new weapon upgrades, but I wish there were more; as much as I hated the inventory system in Mass Effect, I miss the looting.  Granted, it’s not nearly as important as it is in a game like Borderlands, and the actual combat is much improved.  That game-spanning progression just doesn’t exist anymore.  In Mass Effect, I grew into a badass as I obtained the ultimate armor and weaponry…in Mass Effect 2, I feel like a badass from the start, and don’t seem to be moving upwards too far from there.

2. Leveling at Will – Mass Effect 2 clearly takes a more mission-based approach to level design than the original game.  Cities can still be explored, of course, but Bioware listened to feedback about boring, cookie-cutter planetary outposts and gave each quest its own little area.  These areas are essentially progressed through linearly, and only once, and completing them awards experience (and a level up, most of the time).

But by gearing up the combat and doing away with the complex experience-based stat system, Bioware relegated experience to missions and sidequests.  That means killing enemies nets you no XP, making it impossible to go into combat just to level grind a bit.  And sometimes that was fun.

3. Sidequests with some meat – This is an even more minor complaint, but it seems like Mass Effect 2 has cut back on the number and variety of sidequests. In some ways, this is good, since the original’s identical planets and little hives of mercenaries got to be pretty dull.  But the sequel seems a bit spartan, in this regard.  Acquiring each squad member is a mission in itself, as is winning their loyalty — and those are awesome.  Outside of those tasks, though, most of the sidequests seem to consist of finding a single lone object in some environment, then delivering it to a single lone alien who’s clearly lost said item.  It’s basically too streamlined, yet again.  Of course, that’s a better choice than excruciatingly dull back-and-forth fetch quests, but the need and desire to explore has definitely been curtailed slightly.

4. The Mako – Nah, just kidding.  Good riddance.

Thank you for existing, Martin Sheen.

Toasting the improvements, in brief

1. The crew – Mass Effect had some great characters, certainly, but the sequel is brimming with them.  In the first game, I never had much trouble choosing a squad; Wrex, Garrus, and Tali were easily my favorite picks.  But the expanded crew is so packed with awesome fighters, I’ll have to play through at least three times to give everyone their due.  Well, Jacob’s a little boring…but you can’t win ‘em all.

2. Martin Sheen – Good god, yes.  I didn’t know how much video games need Martin Sheen until Mass Effect 2 (hint: they need him a lot).  In fact, the voice cast in general is outstanding, even if male Shepard is still a tad bit ho-hum.

3. The gunplay – Poppin’ space baddies never been so good.

4. DLC Potential – It may be a way to gouge us out of handfuls of money, but the original Mass Effect’s DLC options were seriously lacking.  Bring Down the Sky was decent fun, but a new crew member and the wreck of the Normandy available day one made a believer out of me.  Bioware’s going to give us some worthwhile missions, this time.

In Hindsight: Bayonetta

Bayonetta uses that statue to kill somebody. I'm not even kidding.

Bayonetta brought two thoughts to the forefront of my mind as I spent a chunk of my weekend brutally slaying the divine.

1) Nobody can create an utterly incomprehensible, retarded story through whacked-out interpretations of religion like Japan can.

Maybe I’ve simply reached the boiling point; I’ve watched anime, played games where God or angels show up to give humanity some grief, and it never stuck in my craw quite like Bayonetta. Or maybe it’s just that Bayonetta does everything to the extreme.  ”Flock off, feather face?”  ”Don’t fuck with a witch?”  It’s like watching Barb Wire (although, to be fair, the writing is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and Bayonetta’s voice actress couldn’t be as bad as Pamela Anderson even if she tried).

But then there’s the whole war between Heaven and Hell, thing, and these Lumen Sages and Umbra Witches and somehow they managed to kill each other off even though they seem pretty damn invincible, and then sometime they’re in Purgatorio (which may not be the same as the human world, exactly?) and sometimes poor Luka can see Bayonetta, and sometimes not.  For whatever reason, I could barely tolerate the camp factor, and was itching to skip about half the cutscenes in the game.  Even the “punch each other really fast” left me feeling pretty underwhelmed.  I enjoyed the over-the-top stuff in Devil May Cry 3, but something about Bayonetta simply didn’t resonate.

2) I feel like playing Ninja Gaiden II.

I have no problem admitting Ninja Gaiden II is a flawed game.  It’s got a lot of problems.  The level design early on is kinda bland; the camera is problematic (though I think Bayonetta’s frustrated me nearly as often).  The framerate’s not so solid.  Clearly, it was released before it was completely done.  This is all true.

What’s more, I can guarantee I had a far more frustrating experience playing Ninja Gaiden II than I did Bayonetta.  It’s a harder game (though not as hard as the far more defense-focused Ninja Gaiden.  That is a tough game.)  Bayonetta was a forgiving game; you could die without losing much progress, even during boss fights, and get all your health back to boot!  Okay, so your rating would suck, but I was never putting in the kind of time it would take to achieve Platinum medals, anyway.  Ninja Gaiden had cheap bosses, cheap enemies, and extremely frustrating moments.  This is all true.

And yet I enjoyed it so much more.  Why?  I think it has to do with focus.  Bayonetta is one of the few games I’ve ever played that gives me too much; the volume of button combos, the endless variations of the same two buttons, didn’t feel liberating so much as stifling.  I always felt a bit more in control with Ryu, a bit more balanced, more prepared to launch a devastating attack, dodge out of harm’s way, block the next incoming swipe.  Bayonetta had plenty of awesome mechanics, the Wicked finishers and the torture attacks being especially awesome to trigger after a vicious combo.

But the combat never had the same satisfaction as Ninja Gaiden II’s.  Of course, it’s mostly just stylistic preference — they handle differently, despite their core similarities.  But I think Bayonetta missed the mark of being an evolution for the fighting genre.  ”More” doesn’t equate to “new,” and even if Bayonetta is “More, more, more, more, and more,” it didn’t leave me wowed.

But maybe I just like ninjas.

Scott Pilgrim and the Cross-Genre Adventure

Scott Pilgrim finds his way

It’s not too hard to picture pop culture as a massive, interwoven tapestry of media — movies and television shows and books and podcasts all borrowing ideas and themes from one another, trying to offer consumers something familiar enough to be appealing but original enough to be captivating.  And one of my absolute favorite things in pop culture is when the creative types unabashedly reference their favorite works, with in-jokes or overt name-drops.

Brian K. Vaughan, author of the incredible comic Y The Last Man, wears his comic book geekery on his sleeve.  Every issue of Y is utterly packed with cheerful jokes that won’t make much sense to readers whose knowledge of the medium doesn’t match Vaughan’s, but it’s cool nonetheless to see such a good writer pay homage to his own influences.

More recently, the seriously bizarre (but hardly serious) action game Bayonetta has fun dropping cheeky references to other video games.  Bayonetta’s wacko plot may be a bit too out there for me, but hearing one of its characters emulate the Resident Evil 4 merchant was amusing, and Bayonetta’s own “Henshin A Go-Go” a delight.

In most cases, that’s as far as pop culture goes to plumb the depths of its own history.  Surface-level window dressings can be a ton of fun, but how often do such references have a genuine impact on the heart of a story?  Pretty rarely — which is one of the reasons Scott Pilgrim is so awesome.

Bryan Lee O’Malley doesn’t just work in commentary on music, video games, anime.  I mean, he does all that, and he does it well.  But that’s barely touching on what makes Scott Pilgrim such an original, interesting work.  Scott Pilgrim is a surreal blend of the real world and a goofy, magic-imbued fantasy reality, where Ramona Flowers can use subspace to travel through people’s dreams, where vegans are imbued with psychic powers, and where Scott isn’t just a twenty-something loser — he’s a twenty-something loser who always wins his fights.

O’Malley’s art trends towards the cartoony end of the comic spectrum, which is perfect for the offbeat, experimental mash-up of styles and genres present in his work.  Every great comic creates a detailed world for its characters to exist in, and the way that world is realized appropriately mirrors the style of the narrative.  Cartoony, oversized expressions would seem just as out of place in a post-apocalyptic thriller as minutely detailed characters would look in a lighthearted comedy.  Which isn’t to say that Scott Pilgrim is never serious — but in the world of comics, cartoony, iconic characters are easier to latch onto, and the more stylized they are, the more likely we are to buy into the world around them.

Scott Pilgrim levels up!

Which is important, because the world of Scott Pilgrim is unlike any other.  As they become more and more advanced, video games have been gravitating towards emulating Hollywood to the best of their ability.  They’re trying to adopt the language of movies: the way cinematography works, how scenes are composed, how characters interact.  Comics, on the other hand, have a very distinct style of storytelling, a way of handling time that is very much their own.  But Scott Pilgrim doesn’t quite play by those rules; it incorporates the trappings of video games at a conceptual level.  In a comic, there’s a way you expect characters to interact with their world, and in video games, there’s a way you expect the elements in the interactive environment to work.  But by infusing aspects of video games into Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley has birthed a cool mix of mediums, in which the expected logic of comics doesn’t work the way we’re accustomed to.

1-UpWhen characters die, they don’t die like they would in a comic; they die like they would in a video game, leaving behind power-ups or 1-Ups (or bunnies, in one Sonic the Hedgehog inspired incident). Video game iconography often pops up to establish a scene with a minimum of wordy explanation.  Game-esque “stats” are applied to objects and characters, like Ramona’s bat (+1 against blondes!) and Scott’s leveling up.  Anyone who’s familiar with video games will take these things for granted in a game, but O’Malley uses them to tell a story in a way that games never have.  Narrative in video games often disregards the way we interact with them — RPGs will throw tons of stats and levels and weapons at you, but those things almost never have any bearing on how the story plays out.  But Scott Pilgrim tells its story through those tropes.  Pretty cool, huh?

There’s plenty more video game stuff packed into Scott Pilgrim in the form of references like Clash at Demonhead, and some moments that break the Fourth Wall, which seems only natural for such an offbeat comic.  As interesting as the Scott Pilgrim comic is, it’s even more tantalizing to anticipate how Edgar Wright will take the video game elements and incorporates them into the upcoming film adaptation.  Odds are it won’t work in quite the same unique way, but who knows?

A few days with Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Despite Activision/Infinity Ward’s apparent efforts to alienate every PC gamer on the planet, Modern Warfare 2 is still likely to sell an absolutely ungodly number of copies and make stupid amounts of money.  Maybe they’ve made so many questionable choices simply because they can.  Even if they piss off a few thousand people, that’s hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the millions who will still happily buy Call of Duty will sell.  And after spending a good four days out of the past week playing and observing MW2′s multiplayer, I can comfortably say they deserve their money — it’s absolutely unmatched in terms of variety and customization, and everything that made Modern Warfare an addictive experience has been improved or re-tuned for the sequel.

Perks

Working your way through the arsenal of weaponry in Modern Warfare before deciding on the perfect killing machine was easily one of the game’s strongest points, but perks were the addition that really made people stand up and take notice.  Modern Warfare takes the original idea of custom-tuned stat enhancements and builds on them, eliminating the dead weight of certain perks and instead giving each a second “Pro” tier of added benefits.  Using each perk unlocks the enhanced version in short order — it takes long enough to familiarize you with the perk’s effects, but comes quickly enough to guarantee you won’t be playing with a handicap for long.  I’d almost rather see the second tier take longer to unlock — the feeling of accomplishment Infinity Ward has made such an integral part of the multiplayer experience is, in many ways, more satisfying than victory itself.

Streakin’

Modern Warfare 2 is definitely all about “more is better,” and I think this has paid off more with the expansion of Killstreaks than in any other aspect of the game.  The original three tier system of UAV, Airstrike, and Helicopter added a unique incentive to the multiplayer, encouraging some degree of tactical gameplay.  Using an airstrike without a UAV was often worthless, and blindly rushing into the fray one kill away from the Helicopter was a complete waste of potential kills.

Modern Warfare 2 blows the concept wide open.  Killstreak awards are no longer the same for everyone; like weapon customization, everyone’s killstreak loadout is going to be different, and tuned to your own abilities.  There’s now a wide swath of killstreak options to choose from, ranging from cheap benefits like UAV to more expensive ones, such as a heavily-armed Pavelow attack helicopter or a tactical nuke (at 25 kills, that one’s not going to be showing up too often).  If you’re not too confident in your abilities, setting up a low-kill payoff makes for an easy payoff.  And if you’re regularly laying down 10 kill streaks without breaking a sweat, aim high for a juicy reward.

The killstreaks also introduce two new gameplay elements that will pop up in just about every Modern Warfare match — care packages and sentry guns.  Care packages drop in a random killstreak bonus or supplies to supplement your ammo.  But the bonus comes with a catch — care packages show up on radar, meaning enemies can seek them out and steal your goods.  But that leads to the most interesting dynamic of the care package — choosing between grabbing the bonus or setting a trap for your enemies.  Sentry guns offer a similar risk/reward: they have to be called in from a helicopter, retrieved from a care package, and then set up in a prime location.

Finally, there are the deathstreaks, which add a Nintendoesque helping hand to the stragglers.  Find yourself dying again and again without racking up a single kill and you’ll be treated to a deathstreak bonus, granting you a series of increasingly beneficial helping hands.  10 seconds of super Juggernaut can let you soak up the bullets, but the better deathstreaks are even more interesting.  The painfully annoying Martyrdom from Modern Warfare has been axed from the perks list, but it shows up as a deathstreak bonus.  It’s no less deadly, but the change means it shows up mercifully rarely.  And like the enhanced Juggernaut deathstreak reward, there’s Final Stand, which gives you the opportunity to use your primary weaponry in last stand and climb back up to your feet after surviving long enough.

Guns.  Lots of guns.

More guns.  Better guns.  Cooler guns.  That’s Modern Warfare 2 in a nutshell.  A more diverse, entertaining selection of all manner of real-worlds firearms is on display, ranging from an expanded arsenal of pistols (with the starting magnum and raffika especially fun to whoop ass with) to new rocket launchers backing up the traditional primary selection of assault rifles, snipers, and sub machine guns.  Sidearms may have received the biggest boost–they can now be fitted with various attachments like the larger guns, or be wielded akimbo or with a riot shield.  The latter options are unwieldy — especially dual wielding — and probably won’t have much of a place in competitive play.  Nevertheless, they can still be fun — even if it leads to an early grave, walking around with two .44 six shooters is stupidly satisfying.

The lineup of scopes and weapon add-ons has also increased dramatically, and the much-needed Bling perk allows you to tack on two at once — perfect for adding extended mags, a silencer, or deep impact full metal jacket rounds in addition to a scope (be it the trusty red dot or a new option, like holographic or thermal).  Even the change to explosive weaponry is significant — rocket launchers are how secondary weapons that take the place of a typical pistol loadout, but the addition of homing missiles makes it much easier to shoot down enemy helicopters or UAVs for a healthy serving of bonus points.

At the end of the day, Modern Warfare 2 sill feels very much like the Call of Duty Infinity Ward has built into a billion dollar phenomenon.  Shooting is still precise and a few well placed bullets from virtually any weapon will bring down the opponent.  The game runs silky smooth and feels larger and more detailed than the original Modern Warfare; at times the environments were so packed with urban detritus that I had trouble distinguishing distant enemies from the gritty landscape.

And as impressive as the core components of the game already are, I know there’s more to be discovered — prestige mode, playlists outside of free for all, third person perspective, and everything unlocked after level 43.  Oh, and there’s that little mode called campaign.  That should be slightly interesting.

The magic of bitchjacks

It’s funny how the little things can get to you.  In most of my favorite games, the moments that will forever claim a spot in my memory are generally epic in scope — that first exploration of Ocarina of Time’s vast and open overworld, the incomparably intense encounter with Andrew Ryan in BioShock, that perfect moment in that perfect game of  Halo.  Most games will never make such a measurable impact, never meld so perfectly with what I’m unconsciously looking to experience in a virtual world.

But sometimes that doesn’t matter.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena updates 2004′s critically-acclaimed Butcher Bay and delivers an all-new standalone campaign of its own, mixing competent FPS gunplay with stealth and satisfyingly brutal first-person melee combat.  Fun, but ultimately forgettable — a few years from now, the gameplay will be more or less gone from my memory, leaving little to indicate I’d ever played it at all.

Maybe Starbreeze predicted that all the shooting and crawling around in the dark wouldn’t make Riddick’s new adventure all that memorable.  Maybe they’re slightly deranged.  Whatever the reason, they decided to populate one room within the claustrophobic confines of Dark Athena with prisoners who have something in common: they’re almost all totally insane.

Thanks to some incredibly sharp (and off-the-wall) writing and even better voice acting, the prisoners provide a wholly unexpected amount of absolutely hilarious throwaway dialogue.  The incongruous comedy room works because it’s so out of place in the Riddick universe, where the concept of comic relief makes precious few appearances.  What drives a man to switch gears from friendly gratification to unquantifiable, screaming rage in a sudden bipolar explosion?  Apparently, he really needed to tell Riddick what a pussy he was, which never seems like an especially wise thing to say to the galaxy’s number one badass.

exbob

But crazy man Jaylor’s pussy insults and ravings about murder and necrophilia (necrophilic gangbangs, in fact) pale in comparison to the antics going on in Exbob’s cell.  I don’t know how he got his name — maybe he was, at some point in time, a regular Bob, but clearly those days are long past.  Exbob gyrates constantly in nervous agitation, twitching from side to side and dancing back and forth like a crack-starved parody of Muhammad Ali.  But oh, the things he says.  If there are other games out there with deranged inmates smacking their asses while simultaneously giving you the finger, I need to experience them.

And the bitchjacks.  Ah, the bitchjacks.  Such a little thing — only seconds of the 10 or so hours Dark Athena lasts.  But when Exbob channels his nervous energy into a jumping jack routine, exclaiming “Bitch!” in a hi-pitched squeal at the crescendo of every repetition, I think I saw God.  Maybe I was just trying a little harder than normal to breath, doubled over in convulsions as I was.  Either way, it’s one of those things that sticks with you.  Forever.

(Note: above links are, obviously, profane).

Flourishing Adventure: The Whispered World

The point-and-click adventure genre, once made great by the brilliant minds at Lucasarts, fell on hard times as the 20th century drew to a close.  In the 1980s and 1990s, designers like Tim Schafer poured heart and soul into some of the cleverest, funniest video games in the history of the medium.  As a result, games like Grim Fandango, The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, and practically every other graphical adventure released by the company are still fondly remembered to this day.  And Lucasarts was hardly the only company occupying the adventure space — Sierra had been there from mid 1980s, and their long-standing King’s Quest series was a pioneer for the genre.

When Lucasarts abandoned point-and-click adventures after Escape from Monkey Island in 2000, the well had pretty much run dry.  Occasional releases like Syberia help fans get their fix, but it was clear the golden age had passed.  These days, Telltale Games seem to be the unofficial guardians of the genre.  Their approach is a little different — by taking pre-existing licenses and building seasonal, episodic content around them, they’ve managed to release accessible bite-size chunks of adventure gaming at reasonable prices.  In some cases, there’s a definite trade-off; it’s hard not to look back on the classic 2D animation of Sam & Max Hit the Road when playing the decade-newer, but uglier, Telltale adventures.  Still, their heart is in the right place, and the success of Sam & Max, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures has paved the way for a miniature adventure renaissance.  And a point-and-click resurgence, no matter how small, is always a good thing.

The Whispered World

It becomes a great thing when those adventure games feature lovingly-crafted, luscious hand-drawn backgrounds and classic 2D animation, resplendent in high definition.  That’s why I’m so excited about The Whispered World, a German production that has ripped its beautiful fantasy aesthetic straight out of a fairy-tale.  I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game that looks like it could pass for a Miyazaki film, but The Whispered World looks like it could be a first.  It’s hard to say how the narrative will stack up.  It could be trite, poorly-acted, and wholly disappointing.  Maybe the puzzles will be bland and uninspired.  Maybe the in-game animation, which looks a little jerky in the new German trailer, will be a total letdown next to the incredible background artwork.

Or maybe The Whispered World will be a modern classic, a fitting tribute to a legendary genre, a game that emphatically demonstrates how to bring fantasy to life in playable form.  At any rate, that’s what I’m hoping for.