Friday, February 10, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #1: Dark Souls

I’m not a fan of difficult games. This may come as a shocking revelation to some of you, given my absolute love of games like Super Meat Boy and the indie PC romp, I Wanna Be The Guy, but the thought of marinating hours of my life in something that will eventually best me is not necessarily what I would describe as an enjoyable experience; I much prefer being entertained within those hours rather than belittled. I was hesitant to pick up Dark Souls at the retail price, but decided to roll the dice on a game that looked to be nothing I find profoundly moving about the action/adventure genre. The looks certainly are not deceiving in this instance, but opposites surely attract.

As the game begins, you are thrust into a treacherous world where everything feels like that of an illusion, as if you’re being perpetually picked on by a higher power – something that fits well into the lore where mankind has been seemingly doomed by a vague plague. Stepping on certain blocks in close corridors can send a ball of fire tumbling down the staircase you’re approaching, or shove arrows into your chest if you left your shield aside (or if your reaction time is too slow).

Dark Souls is, in a word, seductive. The idea of danger waiting around the corner practically picks you up and throws you in that general direction, like a cartoonish aroma delivering an animated dog to a pie’s windowsill. The thrill of the hunt is in full effect with Dark Souls, which often flashes a little thigh in the form of towering giants looming in the background, a glimpse into the impending area’s climax.

That seduction does not cease with the intrigue of difficulty and visuals, either. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Dark Souls is the fact that it is, at its heart, a minimalist effort. The designers focused strongly on the engine, which is solid and rarely feels inconsistent with hit detection (which is key in a game this difficult – if you die, it’s your fault) and the level design, which is among the best I have ever seen in the genre. By the wayside is a text-driven adventure the likes of an Elder Scrolls title, leaving the story solely in the hands of a prologue that speaks in riddles and the brief descriptions of equipment strewn about the map. I find most adventure games off-putting due to their wordy nature and lofty lore; in Dark Souls, the story is but an afterthought, and one that leaves you just as engaged as 1,200 pages of text. Curiosity casts a new light on what little there is to know about your surroundings, the once-humans you slaughter, and the boss confrontations that the entire game slowly builds up to - from introduction to the depressingly-short conclusions, which is the game’s biggest weakness. For more on how the story unfolds within the imagination, I wholly recommend the year's best piece of gaming journalism, Chris Dahlen’s essay on Dark Souls.

Very rarely has an adventure game penetrated the survival horror genre, but lo and behold, Dark Souls is the scariest game of the year. This is not necessarily due to the wraith knights that charge you from the darkness in the New Londo Ruins, or the boulder-chucking strongmen who startle you in the swamps, but a legitimate fear rumbling in your belly, one of making a single wrong turn and losing all you’ve worked for.

With no pause button in sight and bonfire checkpoints few and far between, there is a sinking feeling once you realize the path you’ve been going along is so far removed from the outside world. The world is brilliantly designed with many shortcuts accessible upon completion of a specific area, all of which conveniently lead back to the main hub of the world, the Firelink Shrine - but later in the game these shortcuts become a thing of the past. Approaching the entrance to Lost Izalith, one of the final areas in one of the boss arcs, I realized just how far below the surface I truly was; in order to reach Lost Izalith, I had to pass through the sunny outdoors of the Undead Burg; the creepy labyrinth of the Depths into the poison swamps of Blighttown; traverse the Domain of the spider-woman hybrid, Quelaag; and finally succumb to the flames of hell in Demon Ruins, all just to arrive at the doorstep of a devilishly difficult (and insanely climactic, from a minimalist’s storyline perspective) lair of sorrow to hopefully put a good witch out of her misery. To think of the hours put into the game just to reach this point – not even to count the other branches on the map’s tree that sprout off into other directions, but to solely think of this arc alone – and to realize just how far you have come geographically make you realize that you are on an actual adventure. From my own experience, this is simply unprecedented in video games; it is the type of lore typically reserved for literature alone.

Ultimately, that is a huge reason to love Dark Souls: the exploration. The majority of the world is open right from the start, with paths branching to the underground, the graveyard, and up above. The game never sways you in one direction; I first tried the graveyard only to stumble into the Catacombs, the eeriest area of the entire world map, where enemies resurrect after defeat unless you slay them with a particular weapon. I soon realized that I was perhaps 55 levels too low to be sniffing around in such a terrifying den of burden and smite.

Perhaps Dark Souls is at its best whenever we come to the “It’s too late to turn back now” moments, which the game has dozens of. The game certainly has the reputation to turn a liberal gamer into a staunch conservative when it comes to adventure. You may desire the thrill of finding a rare piece of equipment or exploring a new area, but how much does it mean to you? Is losing hours of progress really worth the risk? How close was the last bonfire? These are the options you must weigh continually, possibly several times per hour, while playing Dark Souls. Those who are brave (and good) enough to explore are more often than not rewarded handsomely.

Of course, the literal “It’s too late to turn back now” moments come in the form of white fog doors, which more often than not represent an impending boss or mini-boss fight. Once you cross through the fog, it does not dissolve until the boss has been eradicated. I found myself scrolling through the menu to find how far I was from accumulating enough souls from enemies in order to bank them by leveling up, or visiting a nearby blacksmith to upgrade a weapon, since souls are used as either experience or currency in Dark Souls. “Oh, I’m only 30 minutes away from leveling up? Let’s hold off, then.”

Playing online is essential to the experience, which provides something entirely new and unique to the art of video games in the form of notes left by other players. At one point in the game you must cross a series of invisible bridges, where only a crystal abyss of inevitable death awaits upon fall. In order to figure out where the bridges begin, turn, ascend, or abruptly end, it can take a lot of patience and photographic memory, or by hopping online, markers left by helpful (or deceitful) players just like yourself. Do you trust the marker that states the path is up ahead? Putting this much faith in a total stranger can be a godsend or a costly, naïve mistake; in order to even reach this point, you must traverse a courtyard filled with golems that can annihilate you in two swings.

At the end of the day, 2011 was littered with a Game of the Year for everyone. I figured to have discovered my own way back in January with Dead Space 2, but found myself coming back to my memories of Dark Souls more often than Isaac Clarke’s second adventure in losing his mind. The trial and error learning curve, “pick your poison” exploration, and overall feeling of satisfaction upon completing what once felt like an insurmountable boss battle is enough to stick with a gamer for a lifetime. Try Dark Souls, because you’ve never had a complete experience this rewarding in gaming.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #2: Dead Space 2

Are we enamored with beauty? Studies say that small children are more likely to be attracted to beautiful people than those of us who resemble the likes of me, so certainly this is not an issue created by social means despite being fueled by such. Similarly, we like pretty games. We like seeing what technology is capable of. The message board elite have downplayed the thought that graphics are important similar to that of a flustered parent hushing the notion that their child is not adequately cute. We can sit here all day and state that graphics are of little importance, but just as we play the part of the fool with our mouths agape at the sign of an attractive person walking into the room, we’ll sit in front of the television with stars in our eyes when something wows us.

My jaw’s agape on this one: Dead Space 2 is utterly gorgeous.

The second outing in the franchise from Visceral Games (Dead Space, Dante’s Inferno), Dead Space 2 is the complete package: It has the brains to understand how to properly terrify those who are brave enough to grasp the controller, it has the charm to provide enough cinematic moments to compete with the likes of the Uncharted franchise, it has the imagination to soar to limitless heights, and above all else, it has the looks. It very well could be the Felicia Day of videogames.

On more than one occasion, I would find myself staring out from the starboard, taking in the beauty of a perilous galaxy gone mad. It’s often hard to envision such tragic horrors taking place literally right beside Isaac Clarke with the imaginative artwork that is the natural order of things, from nearby superstations to orbiting stars. Even if the view outside is obscured, taking in the design of The Sprawl, a mini-mall in space with adjacent daycare for the kids (who in turn become infected and ripped limb from limb), is surreal enough to keep you interested in seeing the sights. When you’re counting the dust particles illuminated from within a church’s sanctity -- as the blood dries from your latest conquer, of course -- you know the designers must have done something right.

Right from the opening cut-scene and the sequence that follows, the game hits the ground running. This is the first time I have died in an opening sequence in years, simply because it is so fast paced. Confined to a straight jacket and wandering the halls in a gut-wrenching blaze of glory, you must narrowly avoid the necromorphs that are busting out of their hospital quarters. Are you to be the lone survivor, as fellow patients and doctors alike are being consumed by the monsters surrounding you? And why are you even in this facility? Where are you? The opening five minutes set up a series of questions that keeps the game thriving and well-paced throughout, all while expanding on the lore that the franchise revels in, what with its animated movies and whatnot.

What is it about Dead Space 2 that makes it so special? One of the things it instantly gains is its expansion of the science-fiction medium as a whole. In Hollywood, filmmakers are restricted to the bounds of Earth to depict their creative journeys, where they can only do as much as their locations and set creativity will allow them to do. On the flip-side, videogames such as Dead Space 2 have no limitations; they are bound only by the designers’ imagination. The folks at Visceral Games understand this more than any other developer in the history of the gaming industry, unchaining our customs and expanding our minds with uncanny sequences that are, at their very core, the definition of inspiring. From enemy design the likes of which we have not seen since the Silent Hill series was at its boom period to mapping out the bird-infested living quarters of a caretaker gone mad, the mood is set throughout the game thanks to the imagination of those who have put everything in place.

Dead Space 2 works best when it is pulling from all directions of inspiration, taking things such as a classroom we might find here on Earth and distorting its edges to give it the feel of something familiar but entirely different all the same. Not dissimilar to mistaking a stranger for a friend from behind, Dead Space 2 pulls back the curtain abruptly in most cases, turning something joyous into a relatively shocking experience. Seeing daycares, churches, living quarters, and even retail corridors molded into something heinous and strange with a dark tint over it is a strength for Dead Space 2, even if it’s a new feeling to the series. It is -- and I mean this as the highest form of a compliment -- like playing through one of your nightmares.

While nothing may ever top Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception in terms of cinematic value for gaming, Dead Space 2 is no lightweight; consider it the Adam Wainwright to Uncharted’s Roy Halladay, providing monumental moments when they are needed most, such as rocketing through space and dodging asteroids ala God of War or being dragged through an abandoned hull by a creature you can’t quite see until it is nose-to-nose with you. Uncharted’s amazing cut-scenes and edge-of-your-seat gameplay sequences will be tops for many years, but Dead Space 2’s flirtations with the cinematic feel more realistic. After all, just how many times can Nathan Drake be thrown from skyscrapers or escape sinking labyrinths before he croaks?

All great things have a tragic end, and that may very well be in place for the Dead Space IP. EA has been dissatisfied with the end results on Dead Space 2’s sales, and look to take the franchise in a different direction by turning the ingenious third-person survival horror title, complete with its fantastic HUD that depicts Isaac’s iconic life bar along his spinal column, into a first-person shooter. What a pity to see corporation step in and throw a winning formula under the bus for the sake of an experiment that will crush originality in favor of placing another great circular franchise into a square box, no matter how much they must mash it and break it in order to make it fit. Let’s hope they have a change of heart. Dead Space 2 is deadlocked with the original in terms of quality, and I consider both to be among the best games of this generation. Do not miss them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #3: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The Uncharted series is amongst the very best in new IPs to come out of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360-era. It does a lot of things right, but the two things it does absolutely better than literally any other IP on the market is character interaction and cinematic sequences. Both of those areas have hit their pinnacle with the third opus, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Beginning with a bang that leaves both Drake and his cohort Sully injured by a gunshot wound in a London alleyway atop a heap of garbage, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception does everything that made the Indiana Jones series it often imitates so much fun. Taking the time in its third round to flesh out the back-story between Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, including an in-depth focus on Drake’s childhood and ancestry, the game openly displays the heart of its character (and therefore its characters), allowing you to peer into the emotional attachment between the two best friends of different ages. It's a roller coaster of emotion that plays with your heart strings on more than one occasion due to the impeccable direction of the game, trumping even the best of action films that Hollywood has to offer. Simply put, the game coaxes you into thinking that Nate and Sully are your friends, too.

One of the most impressive things about the Uncharted franchise – one thing that particular shines in this third installment – is the game always gives you a peek into what is going to happen in the game. Box art spoilers ahoy, but when you see Drake board an airplane, you know it’s going to crash. As they say, the fun is not the destination but the journey itself, and Naughty Dog always knows how to keep us on our toes. In all of the game’s big sequences, we knew what direction the game was taking us, yet we’re all so stunned by the way it gets us there. If for nothing else, Naughty Dog should be commended for its imagination.

That is one of my personal favorite things about the Uncharted series as a whole, but in particular this release: each adventure is like a big “connect the dots” portrait, with a series of smaller dots leading to four to six big dots. The game will occasionally slow down with ho-hum corridors filled with generic gun-toting bad guys, but the thrill of seeing what these smaller dots eventually connect to is more than enough to keep shoving you in that direction – and it never, ever disappoints once you get there.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted continues to do some things right and some things wrong. I find it increasingly difficult to play an Assassin’s Creed game after an Uncharted adventure, as I did this year, as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception raises the bar for how acrobatics should be handled in gaming. True, it looks quite ridiculous to see Drake flailing about along the protruding ridges of a building’s landscape, but it certainly feels more fluid than the clunky, "realistic" approach that Assassin’s Creed adapts. Sometimes it is wise to remember that videogames, above seeming realistic, should be fun. Uncharted does the best job of making it abundantly clear which areas are accessible via scaling, rarely forcing you to take a leap of faith in order to find out.

This brings us to the black sheep of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’s skill set in the gunplay. In a game that focusing so much on action sequences where Drake can be utterly surrounded by shotgun-wielding, armor-wearing, shield-toting vigilantes, you should have the absolute best in gunplay in order to effectively defend yourself. The only thing worse in a shooter than an incredibly sensitive aiming reticle is one that is so numb to movement that it takes a jerking motion to set it in the general vicinity of your target, which is exactly what we have with the third Uncharted installment – and a step backwards for the series.

In a normal year of gaming, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception could win Game of the Year without a problem. It has the looks, it has the brains, it has the muscle, and it definitely, above all other contenders this year, has the heart. Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, something as small as sluggish aiming controls during gunplay is enough to hold this one back from winning such honors in a tightly contested year such as 2011.

Do not let a flaw or two persuade you away from one of the best experiences in gaming of the year, as Drake's Deception's story will deceive you enough times along the way to a terrific conclusion to leave you smiling. I'm not sure why Nate continually gets himself crossed up in these outlandish adventures (and lives to tell the tale, no less), but I could go for a few dozen more.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #4: L.A. Noire

There is something peculiar about a new type of genre in the gaming industry, or one that significantly tweaks an existing category to its liking, that piques our interest as gamers. We like being on the up and up with technology and advances over what we currently have, be it from the Nintendo 3DS and the AR Games advancement (which, admittedly, still blows my feeble mind) or the leaps and bounds that the motion capturing industry has made, albeit in an unorthodox fashion, with the arrival of L.A. Noire.

The intrigue sets in thanks to a beautifully crafted story, where war hero Cole Phelps is coming home from World War II only to battle his personal demons in the face of the physical ones on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles, California. Becoming a beat cop and graduating to detective, you play as Phelps as he moves up (and down) the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, deciphering the identity of petty thieves to serial killers in the bowels of L.A. during its Golden Era.

From the outset, you’re thrust into a murder case where the answers should be blatantly obvious… unless you’re me, as I quickly discovered that I am a dreadful judge of character. I’m fairly certain that you could be holding a bloody knife next to a corpse with stab wounds and I’d be on the fence as to whether or not something fishy was up, at least judging by my initial results in L.A. Noire. Unlike any game before it, L.A. Noire forces you to ditch your good guy (or in this instance, good cop) intentions; it forces you out of your comfort zone. In L.A. Noire, no longer can you merely play through a BioWare-esque experience taking the “good” path carelessly. If you try to be the Rebel Jedi in this one, more often than not you will fail at being a good detective, as you can grill the presumably innocent to unlock new clues to further your investigation. By finding additional leads through these interrogations or grilling, you can access possible correct paths to take when coming to a conclusion in your case. This makes it necessary to be an intuitive enforcer if you are aiming for the proper ending to that particular case, as you will be stuck with your decisions made throughout the process. Indeed, you reap what you sow.

The innovative motion capturing technology allows you to see truly lifelike facial movements from those in question, a real breakthrough for gaming as a whole. There are arguments lingering as to whether or not this route of mocap is the future of the industry, with Heavy Rain’s David Cage calling it a “dead-end” for advancement. Likewise, Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand has stated that due to the sophisticated technology’s restrictions, actors cannot riff off of one another to create better chemistry. In hindsight, the jagged and disconnected fragments seldom stand out in a negative fashion due to the serious light that the game is portrayed in. This tech certainly wouldn’t work for the likes of the character-heavy, banter-laden Uncharted series, but it serves a wonderful purpose in L.A. Noire. As for Cage, let’s color him jealous for no apparent reason; both Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire execute what they set course to accomplish, and both are worthy recommendations.

While the look of the game and its innovative technologies that influence the gameplay will be the thing to suck you in and primarily work as its sticking point, one cannot overlook the world that Team Bondi has successfully brought back to life. A sandbox title is only as good as the world map you’re given to explore in. Everything appears clear and crisp, a movie-esque Los Angeles where it seems impossible for depravity to dwell, turning the landscape into an underground den of criminality beneath its rosy surface.

Much like the world around you in L.A. Noire, the characters appear cut and dry on the exterior until you really dig into their trials and tribulations endured over the course of the war. I struggle with the likelihood that these heroes could come back home to find themselves all intertwined in the same schemes – on both sides of the game, no less – in the same city and all, but I’m willing to suspend my belief based on the fact that the performances and writing are titillating enough to tickle the curiosity of most gamers. There comes a time when we can finally expect stellar storytelling in gaming as a platform, and it’s ushered in by the likes of L.A. Noire and the previously-mentioned Heavy Rain.

L.A. Noire may look as though it panders to the Grand Theft Auto crowd on the surface, but those presumptions are washed away as soon as you begin playing as the opposite side of the seedy underground that GTA marinades in. Slow-paced clue-hunting at crime scenes will lead to non-violent searches at establishments within the game’s beautifully-rendered Los Angeles setting, looking for murder weapons or drug stashes. This is more CSI than GTA for the betterment of the game; after all, if we wanted to play GTA, wouldn’t we simply pop that in? L.A. Noire creates its own identity, one that could be picked out of any line-up.

As we all know, Team Bondi has gone by the wayside as a result of their hard work and craftsmanship on L.A. Noire, which is a huge loss to budding development studios everywhere. The long hours they put into perfecting L.A. Noire were one of the reasons for their downfall. The creative folks who concocted the title will go on to do other projects that will entice the masses, but the studio itself looks as though it will not rise from the ashes. It is a shame that a swansong has to be played this early in the life of a studio, but oh, what a melody it is.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #5: Portal 2

I’ve been dreading smacking my hands against the keyboard to explain why this is not my Game of the Year for 2011. It’s an obvious choice for so many out there that anything short of a Top 3 placement could tick a few of you off, as it probably should; Portal 2 is, from front to back, one of the most memorable games of the year. It is a game that anyone who loves the industry would wholly recommend to everyone in earshot and beyond, because it does everything right.

So, why isn’t Portal 2 in my Top 3? That’s probably why I have saved this write-up for last among my ten selections – I do not have a concrete answer, other than my selections are based upon personal preference (obviously). It is a game that begins with something familiar and steadily gets better as it goes along, properly introducing new gameplay elements at exactly the right moments to where you never feel overwhelmed with new knowledge on how to solve the puzzles you’re on. In terms of construction, Portal 2 is matched and surpassed only by my #1 selection of the year, which is hard to do in a day and age where pacing has all but gone the way of the dodo.

The game begins as Chell once again finds herself in the loving grasp of GLaDOS, the evil computer who has dedicated her existence to expanding scientific research against human subjects. With your new dimwitted robotic pal Wheatley, you must attempt to brave through the revenge that GLaDOS sets in place for your destruction of her components in the first game’s conclusion. All is well, all is familiar, all is fun... but when you meet up with GLaDOS, things take a tumble for the strange as you’re displaced outside of the laboratories.

Portal is at its best when it makes you laugh - which says a lot, given the amount of things it is great at doing. The first game was littered with uncanny, hilarious dialogue coming from the “mouth” of GLaDOS, often making the entire experience feel like a huge inside joke that you are a part of. That’s ultimately where Portal succeeds more so than any other game series in the history of our industry: the people who “get” Portal are welcomed with open arms by other fans of the franchise, as we become a fraternity in homage to the boundless wit and heart of the folks who make it.

What Portal 2 does to expand on the universe the game is set in is astounding, and the truest example of evolution of a franchise beyond gameplay. Taking the portal gun’s concepts and dropping them outside of the testing chambers is a huge leap forward for the engine, as it literally forces you to think just as differently with using portals as the first game’s introduction to the device did. Likewise, the game takes a gigantic leap toward progress by moving beyond just the wonderful writing and delivery to invoke a still sadness over the entire situation. Playing with your heart strings, you are introduced to Cave Johnson, the facility’s overseer during its boom period across the ‘60s and ‘70s, and witness his effortless intellect at work throughout his best years as a scientist, all the way until his health begins to fail (see: Lemon Rant). The situation stinks for everyone involved underneath all of the funny one-liners and phenomenal acting from the likes of J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant, but the writers never truly throw the despair in your face; you must discover the subtlety of how depressing the situation is on your own through the scenery of the rummaged-by-nature Aperture HQ and the timely delivery of the actors’ lines.

For those of you who are constantly in need of something new and fresh, you can attempt to properly coordinate puzzle solving with a friend (or even worse, a stranger) via the brand new multiplayer mode – or as I call it, the “Learn to Hate Your Friends in Two Hours” seminar. Many feel that this is the true strength of Portal 2, though the flavors are truly different enough to distinguish themselves as sweet and salty. The story sequence provides moderate puzzles with heavy mythology sprinkled throughout for the game’s betterment, while the multiplayer experience relies on strict cooperation between two people with impeccable timing. Note to self: do not play with friends who have slow motor skills.

Amidst all of the things Portal 2 does right, my favorite thing is its ability to switch-up its core setting midway through the game, making the second act feel so incredibly, strangely different from everything that comes before or after it; it is the Bohemian Rhapsody of video games. Oddly enough, I also love that song but it is nowhere near the top of my favorites. This sequence also gives us an inside-look at what other madness Cave Johnson dreamt up during his years at Aperture, from the likes of turning participants into mantis men to his endearing globs of paint that actively manipulate physics throughout the lab. The introduction to paint that makes you bounce or sprint adds another realm of options to dive into while making your way through the facility, adding even more depth to the array of puzzles that comprise the title.

Perhaps Portal 2 is destined to be the one game that everybody can find something to love about in varying degrees. I concede that Portal 2 does literally everything right, from the artistic design to the puzzle implementation to the pacing to the writing. If it is in Portal 2, it is done to perfection. My apathy toward the puzzle genre may hinder the undying affection for the title that millions of others feel, but I can honestly say that this is not in my Top 3 solely out of personal opinion, as the game flawlessly executes everything it sets out to do.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #6: Mortal Kombat

Several weeks ago, I saw a post on Lamebook about a young woman who was utterly perplexed as to why a telephone from the 1990s was plugged into itself, unaware that the cord attached the unit to the receiver. Everybody has a laugh and thinks, “Oh boy, aren’t we old when kids these days don’t even recognize what a telephone from 20 years ago looked like!” It then dawned on me: kids these days might not know what the arcades were.

Notice the tense used right there: were. About five years ago I visited my favorite arcade, about 25 miles from my old stomping grounds. It was a plush basement within a mall, complete with an underground mini-golf course and rows upon rows of arcade machines during the fighting genre’s boom period. I can still remember how loud the Mortal Kombat II machines roared in my face, the screaming of combatants being torn limb from limb prior to a bass-driven declaration of victory from an unseen narrator. These are fond memories from a time that will never come back into the mainstream, as our machines at home are more powerful, more rewarding, and offer a wealth of competition from around the globe in the comfort of our living rooms. Kids these days will never really understand why we spent hundreds of dollars on a game we could never even take home with us against lackluster local competition comprised of burnouts (at least in the Midwest). There was something about putting your money where your mouth is, the camaraderie between frequent mallrats who played the same machines, and the social atmosphere. It’s sad to face, but facts are facts: we will never see that again. It is a relic in time that is to be lost on future generations.

Growing old sucks, and this dawning realization that arcades are next on the list of things kids simply won’t understand (and logically so – while I never regret the money poured into the arcades as an adolescent, it was never very practical) is just another extension of getting older. Partially because I hadn’t played a captivating fighting game in a while and partially out of nostalgia, I took a keen liking to the development cycle of Mortal Kombat, the ninth installment of the fighting game staple that brought the genre to the mainstream. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.

Blending the careful juggling made popular in the heyday of the Mortal Kombat franchise from Mortal Kombat II through Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 with the dashing abilities that 3D fighters have implemented liberally, NetherRealm Studios has crafted Mortal Kombat from scratch with a brand new engine that successfully spiritually captures what made the original games so captivating: fast combat, loads of gore, and a flawless sense of humor.

One thing that Mortal Kombat infinitely improves on is satisfying combos. Long gone are the days of being able to dial-in your combos with an unblockable series of button combinations that automatically launch a string of attacks with the only way to break through them existing in the form of the player who's executing the attacks screwing their wide timing window up. With the new set-up, you can successfully dial-into a small combo of three hits worth 7% or so damage, but in order to deal the hefty fines, you will have to refine your ability to launch your opponent into the air and set them up with a perfectly-timed combination of attacks to keep them there. It’s not Street Fighter-difficult to master, but still tough enough to weed out the boys from the men.

Speaking as a relatively “good” gamer, I can state without a doubt that the fighting game genre is the most inclusive of all game types; it feeds on competition and the level of devotion it takes to become remotely good is often off-putting for many gamers. Unlike popular shooters where you can have fun with your friends while attempting to get better at the game, fighting games leave the spotlight shining solely on you; there is no one to attack while they are distracted with one of your buddies. Likewise, there is no way to play with your friends, only against them. This can cause tension in your inner-circle if you or your friend happens to be pretty decent at the game, making it a tough game to socialize in. Mortal Kombat tries its best to get over these humps by introducing a King of the Hill mode where the winner continues playing until he or she is defeated, all while spectators look at the action from the lobby and toss tomatoes at the screen, amidst other fun expressions.

The talk of the town with Mortal Kombat was inarguably the robust Story Mode that complemented the fun arcade-style action, putting you in the boots of random world warriors as they tackled their own paths through Earth Realm and beyond. Raiden sends a message to himself in the past in an effort to prevent Shao Kahn’s stranglehold over humanity, allowing the development team to properly write their love letter to previous Mortal Kombat installments with new takes on classic fatalities, characters, and especially stages – even if Kombat Tomb was overlooked. I’ll never stop wondering how that pterodactyl made his way to Outworld. The backgrounds are one of the better portions of the game, as 90% of them have been properly updated to feel as familiar as ever with a dabbling of artistic fortitude. The Krypt is also back to keep devoted fans chugging along in order to unlock all of the characters, fatalities, artwork and other goodies well after the Story Mode has played out. Simply put, there is a lot of value to be had here.

Ultimately, the reason I stopped playing Mortal Kombat was due to the lackluster online stability at the title’s launch. More so than any other genre, lag can utterly destroy an online community before it even begins in the fighting genre, as often the difference between victory and defeat can rest in milliseconds of timing. To face an insurmountable hill to ascend in the form of a half-second of lag is game-breaking, as it’s impossible to adequately time combos when the timing of the game you that enter is unpredictable, varying from lobby to lobby. Consistency is a necessity in these types of games, period. Still, my time with Mortal Kombat was fond enough to provide new memories with the franchise, a feeling that has not been heard of since 1995.

Strategy has never been a selling point to the orgy of violence that is Mortal Kombat, but that changes with the arrival of this ninth entry into the long-running fighting series. It's not all about blood and guts these days; if you dig down deep, you might find a little bit of brain matter and cartilage, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #7: Rayman Origins

When a team gets together and focuses their mind on the type of game they would like to create, comparisons are immediately drawn up. More often than not, the run-of-the-mill games that sit wistfully on store shelves are the ones where the team decided on a generic approach, emulating whatever the hot title was three months prior to its initial development. “This will be like BioShock, but with an emphasis on gunplay!”

The truly great games get made under the distinction that the development team decides to go balls to the wall in creating something all to themselves. The reason we talk about games such as BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Braid in such a positive light is the team’s brash, bold decision to create something that they would want to play, a title that further evolves a familiar mold that we all love. You can add Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman Origins to this list of love letters that developers write to themselves that we are lucky enough to get our grubby mitts on.

I’m a firm believer that if you truly love the work you’re doing, it will shine through in the final product. This is the case with Rayman Origins, a game that works on various levels of emulation but rarely imitation, offering instead to work its own complex platforming engine and ingenious level design into the friendly confines of a colorfully robust world of its own creation.

Evolving past the days of Goomba-stomping and spinning through loops collecting coins, Rayman Origins instead focuses on the art of platforming itself. Revamping what we consider to be the prototypical platformer, sensitivity and physics have been thrown against the wall in an effort to mix things up in the form of various playable character types. The differences tend to be slight between the plethora of characters and skins, but when your engine is as sleek as that of Rayman Origins, the difference between massive success and colossal failure often lies in the most miniscule of detail; you may have hit that ledge instead of plummeting to their doom if your character provided the teensiest bit of gliding boost, for example.

Again, however, all of this is miniscule in the long run. The slightest improvement to a storied formula might not gel as well with others as it does with this open-minded platforming aficionado, and I understand that. What we can all agree on – especially Ubisoft Montpellier – is that the best way to improve the platforming genre is with sophisticated stage design. Rayman Origins delivers more than enough of that, as you will receive several handfuls of brilliantly developed and gorgeously animated stages after the initial introductory world, which is admittedly bland at first glance. This bleeds over to the smile-inducing boss battles, as well, where a myriad of oversized goons are yours for the smacking.

There are three types of stages in Rayman Origins, and all three types knock it out of the park. Your typical platforming stages have been beefed up with floating wind currents that send you spiraling between thorny vines, dodging debris while bouncing to and fro between shards of wood, and swimming through jellyfish labyrinths without getting zapped. Riding on the back of a friendly mosquito, you can take part in cleverly woven side-scrolling shooter tracks that would make the casual R-Type observer salivate, ricocheting bullets off of metal objects to land trick shots on pesky inaccessible foes. The best has been saved for last in the form of chase stages, where moving forward is a requirement in an effort to seize runaway treasure chests containing the teeth of the Grim Reaper, who has a heinous trick up his sleeve upon completion of his dental work. If you don’t grin and grimace as you figure out a tough portion of the chase scene only to meet the next roadblock, you might need to check your pulse. Simply put, Nintendo could use some pointers by playing through this inspired take on the genre they put on the map.

The title of best 2D platformer for this generation (and possibly ever, truth be told) still belongs to the epiphany-inducing Super Meat Boy, but Rayman Origins certainly won’t mind coming out of nowhere to blindside gamers everywhere for the second place spot. This game has regularly been available for bargain prices worldwide as of the past few weeks, which is unfortunately mind-boggling. Don’t miss out on one of the better throwbacks of this generation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #8: Gears of War 3

I always find myself more critical of the Gears of War franchise compared to other similar titles, like a critical parent who wishes one child were more like the other. It likely has to do with the myriad of issues that go unfixed in the multiplayer, such as consistency levels, rotating weapon layouts that disrupt strategy, and unbalanced starting weapons that turn the normally slow-paced Gears of War into a violence-on-demand frag-fest.

Gears of War 3 continues to co-opt features from the likes of Call of Duty with the ability to prestige, a Team Deathmatch mode to attract the run-and-gunners who infest Halo, and a strong emphasis on free-for-all-type battles as opposed to teamwork – in other words, it has become something other than Gears of War in its third installment, largely in part to these contributing factors piling atop the charade that is the Gnasher and Sawed-off Shotguns. 80% of the deaths in my experience – both killing and being killed by – have been at the hands of starting weapons. Gears continues to struggle with the awkwardness that Gears of War 2 brought about, giving possibly the best and most unique multiplayer engine some negative traits the likes of the aforementioned setbacks. If only it could remain as consistent as the Campaign that complements it.

Due to the default mode being Team Deathmatch, old Gears staples such as Execution and Warzone have seemingly gone by the wayside. Tens of thousands will be playing Team Deathmatch, while only the 2000 or so cream-of-the-crop-tier players will be demolishing the competition in the traditional Gears of War game modes. In other words, if you wish to enjoy classic Gears, you better shape up, buttercup, because you will be going toe-to-toe with the very best Gears of War players in the entire world. Needless to say, this is off-putting for those of us who are pretty good as opposed to dedicating their free time to mastering the craft of the engine.

Team Deathmatch also renders certain maps useless due to persistent spawn-killing that overtakes good sportsmanship in the heat of the moment. Levels such as Drydock and Overpass quickly become a race to whoever can control the center of the map and shoot down at those who are just spawning. Fear not, as you’ll get 3 seconds of spawn protecti… never mind. The time it took me to type that sentence is all you will get before the hunting spree commences in the wide-open spaces where cover is non-existent and resistance to four guns-blazing is futile.

So why is Gears of War 3 on this list, given the complaints? It is because at its core, the gameplay engine is unlike anything else on the market, and the Campaign is no slouch, either. Gears of War 3 is more of the same from Gears of War 2, offering gigantic boss battles, better vehicular missions, a little variety in backgrounds to spice things up, and a fitting conclusion for a breakneck story arc. With its back-story being properly fleshed out, the tale of Marcus and Dom comes to an end while reflecting on the casualties along the way, be it the cities that have crumbled in ruin, thanks to the C.O.G. and their Hammer of Dawn’s destructive force. Hearing the horror stories of how the C.O.G. destroyed civilization even more than the Locusts themselves is a political statement wrapped in a beam of chaos brought down from above -- especially given the conclusion to the second game, where the largest city in the land was destroyed at the hands of the good guys themselves.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say, and Gears of War 3 imitates several franchises quite a bit throughout the course of its Campaign mode. Several games have gameplay elements or settings lifted straight out from underneath them. Some are more ambiguous, like hordes of rabid creatures swarming you viciously (Left 4 Dead), while others are as blatant as announcing that you’re shoplifting over the public address system at a retail outlet, such as an underwater city where the worlds best and brightest are kept away from the unclean (BioShock). Countless games have taken from Gears in the past (and in the future; Resident Evil 6 looks to adapt the Gears cover system), so it's not a knock on Epic for lifting a few ideas here and there. Still, looking at the Depths multiplayer map is essentially like staring at a wartime Rapture environment. It is what it is.

The thing that sticks out most in Gears of War 3 is the emphasis on creating a more heartfelt story than merely “bug-men have surfaced on the planet, make tiny pieces of metal enter their mouth-holes.” It is clear from the get-go that humanity is on its last legs, and the final confrontation – for better or worse – is dawning for the human civilization. Marcus and the rest of the C.O.G. members we know and love will face greater hardships than we’ve seen before, and they’re handled in the best way possible. It seems slightly bi-polar in a world where riding Brumaks to destroy other Brumaks and revving a chainsaw to cut through the innards of a giant worm held sway in the second entry, taking the series from serious to tongue-in-cheek to sorrowful. It’s an identity crisis, but it manages to salvage the sense of despair that made the first game the golden standard for the series.

Gears of War 3 suffers from the same pitfalls that the second installment of the gore-hungry franchise fell into. During the original Gears of War, gamers witnessed a gigantic beast stomping through in the distance and immediately wanted a chance to go toe-to-toe with it. This enemy was known as the Brumak, and it was larger than every other enemy in the original game. One of the biggest reasons why the first Gears of War remains the best was its terrific pacing, and Cliffy B responded to player outcry over wanting to face the deadly beast by throwing dozens of them at us – and even larger critters, to boot. Gears of War 3 continues this trend by tossing even bigger baddies out there for us to obliterate in a mere two rounds of Lancer fire. I prefer a little foreplay as a prerequisite to my orgy of violence, personally.

Gears of War has defined itself -- again, for better or worse -- with these big moments. The initial sequence at the start of the game has a humongous sea beast attempting to sink a large vessel that Marcus and Co. are aboard. This sums up the experience you are likely to face throughout. I would argue the opposite, that Gears of War is at its best when it forces you to look at the devastation around you. One particular sequence finds the C.O.G. entering a city that has long been forgotten under the ray of their very own Hammer of Dawn. As you look around, you notice that the remains of men, women, and children who perished in the blast have become entrenched in time, erected as dust statues all around you by the dozens, collapsing into the ether upon touch. These are the moments, due to their perfect pacing that made the first installment so memorable, that make the case for Gears of War as an elite franchise. If it could stop pandering to the Michael Bay fan club of big explosions and instant gratification, it could finally reach its full potential. Alas, that must happen after the Marcus Fenix chapter in the Gears universe. Gears of War 3 is a step in the right direction for the franchise. As cliché as it has become in sequence, it is still an engine worthy of imitation, praise, and repeated playthroughs. Now if only they could finally fix issues with the multiplayer...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #9: Catherine

I love never knowing what to expect out of a title. I intentionally avoid trailers for upcoming films I might be interested in just so I can know as little about them as possible; there are simply too many telling signs in previews for my liking that can untie a story's knot. When I first heard the concept of Catherine, a very Japanese import that hit American store shelves from Atlus, I immediately ceased reading much about the story so that I may savor it for myself. I’m glad I did.

At some point in a long-term relationship, you begin to seriously contemplate all of the words you threw around at the inception of the budding romance. Do you really, actually want to get married? At what point does “I want children someday” become “I want children this year”? Somewhere along the line comes time for an evaluation of all the fly-by-night statements you’ve made about who you want to become one day. Some openly accept it as a passage of growing up, while growing up terrifies some of us. Awkward tension arises from our own uncertainty, which we project on our closest confidant, and sometimes we need an outlet outside of them. In a moment of weakness, just as Catherine’s protagonist, Vincent, soon learns, we cheat to escape the growing realization that maybe what we have been living is a lie.

In a nutshell, the above paragraph is the premise for Catherine. Vincent is a nice enough guy who is too centered on his own needs to adequately provide for his long-term partner, Katherine. Katherine is ready to settle down and get married, as to where Vincent feels that to be married is to accept death. Enter Catherine, an early-twentysomething with a penchant for a man in a bind. When Vincent awakens the day after meeting her only to find Catherine sleeping beside him and no recollection of what happened, the game’s story effectively begins.

Speaking of sleep, it soon becomes the enemy of Vincent, as the other 60% of the game – the actual gameplay rather than interactive cut-scenes and socializing – takes hold of Vincent every night. While the social experiments are a lot of fun, the main portion of Catherine will revolve around these puzzles, where you must manipulate a tower comprised of blocks in order to ascend to the top where an escape is imminent. Varying creatures await at the bottom of the pit should you fall, ranging from rancid babies to decaying demons in wedding dresses – some of which are actually rather frightening to behold. This is not the bread and butter to Catherine, but it's a fun puzzle set-up with a variety of block types to spice things up right as they begin to lose your interest.

The great thing about Catherine (the game – not the seductive character) is its ability to develop according to the player’s response to the actions. Being a red-blooded male, it’s tough to tell Catherine not to send scantily-clad photographs to Vincent’s smartphone, but it’s the right thing to do if you feel Vincent should man up and confront Katherine about his issues. The game allows you to dictate how their relationship will pan out. If you feel as though Katherine is suffocating poor Vincent with her demands, you can snark back at her and run into the arms of the bodacious babe, Catherine. If you feel as though Vincent is an immature brat, make him feel like crap and treat Katherine as nice as the game will allow.

On the puzzle side of things, the folks you meet and interact with around the bar where Vincent continually hangs out will appear periodically during his night terrors, and if they succumb to the tower, they never wake up. Catherine plays out like a quirky horror movie, if you’ve ever heard of such a thing. As puzzles intensify, you are taught new tricks to continually advance through the game and your grasp of exactly how to ascend the tower will mature to the point of near-perfection. You will be dreaming of sheep ascending blocks above derriere demons in no time.

The Japanese are known for their story-heavy titles in the gaming industry, from the Metal Gear Solids of the world to Final Fantasy, but rarely has a game been such a sprawling narrative as Catherine. Upon booting the game up, you’re slowly and carefully taken down a dreadful road littered with mistakes and pop quizzes on morality along the way, and it always seems that all eyes are upon you. The game that’s being played in Catherine is you, not the other way around, as it will openly judge your decisions and provide you with a look at what Vincent’s life will be like due to the choices you’ve made.

Catherine is certainly unique: It offers puzzle-lovers to have their fill while those in it for the story (such as myself) can expand their minds to encompass the art of slinging blocks to and fro. And lest we forget the best part in deciding the fate of our protagonist! Variety is the spice of life, as they say. Give it a try, if only to look inside yourself for once.