Monday, November 30, 2009

Prince of Persia - Complaints

I did a TON of gaming over the Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately I didn't do any blogging, so now it's time to play catch-up.

First I'll finish my series on Prince of Persia. I was pretty positive about the game earlier, but now it's time to vent some bile by pointing out all the game's flaws. In no particular order:

- The combat is boring and cheap. It relies way too heavily on quick-time events, some of which require the player to hammer away on a specific button for several seconds. Enemies block at random and can trigger special attacks whenever they care to, often multiple times in a row later in the game. I could do the platforming in this game for hours but the battles lose my interest in seconds.

- Enemies also sometimes glow a specific color that indicates they can only be hit by a certain type of attack. The color for a magic attack with Elika is black. The color for a throw attack is dark, dark, dark purple (i.e. black). If you call for Elika when you were supposed to do a grab move, she collapses in a heap until you can get to her position and revive her. Take a guess as to how this works out during a frantic, quick-time event laden battle. An Xbox can render THOUSANDS of different colors - why exactly did these two have to be identical?

- PoP is surprisingly glitchy for an Ubisoft game. In particular, the Epilogue is very poorly constructed. The most egregious was an audio bug that caused a high pitched screeching sound like nails down a chalkboard to loop constantly while playing. Most of the bugs are well documented in the online community, yet Ubisoft has done little to fix them.

- Speaking of the Epilogue, which can be downloaded from Live for a little extra dough, it is a FLAMING TURD. I've heard that some people complained the game was too easy, and Ubisoft apparently thought the best way to handle that complaint was to sharpen their platforming gameplay to a point and shove it under our fingernails as we tearfully apologized for our impertinence. The retail game makes you feel like a superhero as you swing and leap around the environment, while the add-on content makes you feel as if the Prince's hands have been replaced by walrus flippers, stumbling and flailing about the ridiculously lengthy series of jumping puzzles.

- Oh, and everything that sucks about the combat in the regular game is 100 times worse in the Epilogue. Same bosses as the original but even cheaper? Hooray!

- The Achievement list is mostly based on widget collection (1001 light seeds). All the icons are the same crappy picture. The whole thing is pretty uninspired.


- And the worst issue of all: the ending is CRIMINALLY bad. I would have been irate with the ending if I hadn't been so stupified with its pure idiocy. Not only does it not make any sense given the characters, but it completely nullifies everything you worked to achieve in the game. Then everyone complained that the ending sucked, so they made an Epilogue to give the game a more "satisfying" ending, only that one sucked too! You go through the whole game working your ass off to save the land, then undo it all in seconds. Why? So they can make a PoP2 and make you do it all again. Seriously Ubisoft...fuck you. That is a total dick move and I won't forget it.


I'm not sure what to make of Ubisoft these days. I've liked their games in the past, but we're not getting along so well lately. At least I got the sense that they were trying to make a good game with Assassin's Creed, even if they failed miserably. This PoP game has some strong points, but it's riddled with bugs and bad design decisions, plus the cop-out ending is a total deal-breaker for me. I'm not ready to cut them off completely, but a couple more bombs like this and we could get to that point.

For those still interested in PoP, I'd recommend renting the retail version and avoiding the downloadable Epilogue like the plague.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Prince of Persia - Plot

Most of the time I can see pretty early where a game is headed story-wise, and it'll be abundantly clear whether I'm going to like the plot or not. But occasionally a game will surprise me. Prince of Persia is one of those games.

PoP establishes a rudimentary plot right from the word go. Within the first hour you (as the titular character) meet a mysterious woman (Elika), save her from some bad guys, observe as her father opens the seal to a dark God in an ancient temple (why do people do never ends well), and escape with your lives. The rest of the game involves hunting down a bunch of McGuffins, in this case Light Seeds, and healing the various sections of the land to prevent the reincarnation of the dark god.

My first thought: LAME.

Sorry Ubisoft, but we've been down this road many times before. Preventing the re-emergence of an evil being of terrible power is a REALLY common video game trope. And in this case we get very little backstory to make the task more interesting. Where is this strange land? Why does the Prince, a wandering tomb thief, care about this? Who is this dark god threatening, and why? How does Elika fit into all of this?

But no, the game just throws you into the adventure and says "Get to work" without a bit of explanation. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

Here's the thing though - I was totally wrong. The game isn't about all that "save the world from the dark god" crap at all. I mean it is, but only in the sense of having a reason to run around, explore the environments, and get in the occasional dust-up with an enemy. The REAL story is the burgeoning relationship between Elika and the Prince. Yep, PoP is a love story!

Don't believe me? Check out the two main characters. The Prince is your typical bad-boy with a heart of a gold. He makes his way by stealing valuables, but only from the tombs of dead rich people. He's a little rough around the edges, but it's largely a macho front designed to keep people at a distance because he's been through a past trauma. He constantly talks about only looking out for himself because it's the only person he can trust. Of course, that doesn't stop him from dropping everything going in his life to risk his neck repeatedly for a mysterious female stranger. He's wandered throughout the world on a number of adventures, but it's always been ALONE.

As for Elika, she's a princess who has spent her life carrying a terrible burden for her people. She has magical powers that protect her people from the dark god, but because of that she must live in protected isolation, never leaving the bounds of the palace. Plus she has her own emotional baggage, with a mother who died while she was young, a father who suffered depression since, and no friends to help her along the way. She's tough and proud, but mostly just to hide the fact that she's lonely and has never seen the world.

Now, I'm no expert on romance novels (that's my wife's territory), but are these two not straight out of central casting? He's the dark, wandering hero who the Princess can find frustrating and yet intriguing at the same time. And she's the proud, beautiful woman who needs his help and just might be able mend his (nominally) wicked ways.

The crazy thing is that their romance is completely optional, because they only really interact if you press the L Trigger to keep their conversation going. You can just ignore it (much like the Z-button scenes in Tales of Symphonia), but you'd really be missing out on one of the best parts of the game. The interactions between Elika and the Prince feel realistic and make the story a lot more interesting.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Assassin's Creed Plot - A Lesson in Failure

More good comments from Rachel yesterday. She's wrong about one thing though...I have no issue with linking to her site no matter how big an Ubisoft fan girl she is. In general I really like Ubisoft and I've played a ton of their games. It's just that, thanks to Assassin's Creed, I'm once bitten and twice shy.

Speaking of Assassin's Creed, one of my biggest disappointments with the game was the story. A disgraced member of a brotherhood of assassins must redeem himself by slaying nine high profile targets in the ancient Middle Eastern holy lands, all the while unraveling the mystery of how they're connected and what terrible secret they're dying to protect? How can that miss? Well, it missed and by a wide mark.

More than anything, the designers' biggest mistake was in rationing out the story FAR too slowly. I like suspense as much as the next guy, but every time you eliminated a target you'd think, "Finally, they're sure to tell me a little bit about what's going on now!" But's just more of the same ambiguous crap and idle prattle that you've been given in heavy doses all along. By the time the game decided to tip its hand and give us a big reveal (at the VERY end), I had long since stopped caring. I think a lot of this was borne of the fact that they were trying to make a series of games and didn't want to use up too many good ideas on the first one. Here's a thought guys: make a great game first and THEN develop it into a series if people like it.

Plus the dialogue was insulting to the player's intelligence on a variety of levels. I remember the doctor who maimed his psychologically ill patients to keep them under control. And when I killed him, the magnanimous bastard had the audacity to make it sound like he was the good guy, chiding me that he was only doing what was necessary and "you wouldn't allow a child to come to harm if it was throwing a fit, would you?" Uh no, but I wouldn't break it's legs to shut it up either, dumbass. Who are you kidding here?

I only bring these things up because my next post will talk about the plot of Prince of Persia, which is greatly streamlined compared to AC, and yet it works for me on a more subtle level. Also AC2 comes out soon and I'm hoping against hope that the story is better conceived. The tedious gameplay of the first game would have been well worth it if the story had lived up to expectations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Prince of Persia - Gameplay

Prince of Persia is a series reboot that Ubisoft released for a variety of platforms, including the 360. The previous games were much beloved, and I'd like to think this move was an apology by Ubisoft for the wretched release that was Assassin's Creed. For a full review of that monumental failure, check Jeff's Achievement Box here.

Playing Prince of Persia, I feel like Ubisoft could have made the perfect game if they had just combined it and Assassin's Creed into one uber-game. Whereas AC saddled their platforming masterpiece with a bunch of tedious busywork and design flaws, POP is all about scrambling through richly detailed environments. That includes climbing walls, hopping from pillar to pillar, leaping across chasms, and a number of other acrobatic moves. While there's certainly a learning curve, a little practice is all it takes to get the Prince scaling impossible surfaces with seeming ease.

I can't play a third-person platformer without commenting on the camera, and in the case of POP that means doling out some well deserved praise. The camera in this game is fantastic, easy to position and almost always pointed right where I need it. A sure sign of a great camera is that I've barely even thought about it while playing.

Another mechanic that works really well in POP is your companion Elika, the magical "do-over" machine. Any time you make a mistake and send the Prince on a flailing plunge to Jagged Rock City, Elika uses her magic to transport you back to the most recent solid ground you were inhabiting. It's the same effect as if you were saving the game after every series of jumps, but without the tedium of actually doing so. I really like the way Elika works in the game, because it encourages you to explore the environment without the punishment of a Game Over if you're wrong. Hmm...that column is pretty far away. Can I make the jump? Whoops, it looks like I can't...good thing Elika is here to save me!

The only area where I think Ubisoft needs more improvement is in combat. POP doesn't feature nearly as much combat as AC (thank God), but there's still a fair bit of it. They've replaced the frequent battles against waves of soldiers with occasional battles against boss monsters. The issue is that these are repeated quite a bit and they become pretty tedious over time. Again, Elika saves you before you can ever die, so it's mostly a matter of pattern recognition and attrition. By the time you fight the same boss for a fifth time, you'll probably feel just about done with the experience.

I'm a little over halfway done with POP, but so far I'd recommend it to anyone who likes well-designed platformers.

Trivial Pursuit - Add on Packs

Rachel brought up a great point in the comments, so I thought I'd address it in a new post:

"What about various packs? I really enjoyed the movie pack but are there others? What did you think of those?"

It's true that Trivial Pursuit offers downloadable question packs that can be added to your game. You can play any of the modes using just the downloaded packs, or you can add the packs to the original questions. The packs have themes, so there's a movie pack, a sports pack, and a video game pack to name three.

The movie pack was free so I downloaded it and tried it out. Overall I liked it. The basic format stays the same, but all the questions are now about a specific topic. So if you land on an orange square (Sports and Leisure), you'll get a question about a sports movie instead. For people who prefer to show off their knowledge on one topic rather than a broad range, it's a good idea.

I didn't buy any of the other packs - in fact, Trivial Pursuit is on its way back to Gamefly - but the video game pack would have been interesting.

Eventually I'll have to try one of the Scene It games available for the 360 as a comparison to Trivial Pursuit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trivial Pursuit

Sorry for the radio silence lately...I was out of town and therefore not gaming.

But I'm back and better than ever! Or at least the same as always. I finished Trivial Pursuit yesterday so it's time to put it under the microscope and see how it fares.

As a recreation of the board game, Trivial Pursuit holds up reasonably well. You roll a die, move spaces around the board, and answer trivia questions in six different categories. There's a "Classic" mode that just uses the typical rules, but the gameplay is fleshed out with two additional bonus modes. One is "Clear the Board", a single player variant in which you answer questions for points as you collect the various pie wedges. I guess this mode is meant to satisfy antisocial people who like trivia, but I found it to be pretty dull. Far better is the "Facts and Friends" mode, a multiplayer variant in which each player shares one game piece as it moves around the board and the other players try to guess whether their friends will get questions right or not. It also includes bonus tiles that allow players to steal pie wedges or teleport the game piece around the board. It's a nice update to the classic rules that largely negates the advantage of one person being luckier with their die rolls than the other.

There are some key differences between the board game and this title though. First of all, questions are answered largely as multiple choice affairs rather than straight memory recall, as in the original board game version. Multiple choice definitely changes the dynamic, as seeing the correct answer will often jog your memory. Even eliminating a couple wrong answers gives a player a good chance of guessing the correct one. Beyond that, I still question whether this is an adequate replacement for the actual board game in local play. Certainly being able to play remotely with friends over Live is an advantage, but if we're in the same house then call me a Luddite but I'd still much rather roll the dice and read the cards to each other than sit on the couch staring at the TV.

A lot of board games have been translated into Live Arcade titles, including Catan, Carcasonne, and all the Family Game Night entries. But Trivial Pursuit was released as a full retail game, so it has to be judged based on those terms. Given that, I don't think it holds up really well. The experience is too shallow and fleeting to merit a full price purchase in my eyes. Although I will say that I never saw a repeat question, which is a plus.

In terms of Achievements, the full 1000 is a pretty simple task to complete. Most of them are earned for completing the various modes (classic, CTB, F&F) without missing questions in the six categories. The rest of them are tied to fairly simple tasks...there's a decent variety but there's really only so many challenges to be had in a game of Trivial Pursuit. While the icons are colorful, they're just pie wedges on colored backgrounds. I'm not sure what else they could have done given the limits of the material, but it's a dull and repetitive set.

Overall, I'd only recommend the game to a person who was a big fan of trivia games and wanted something to play with distantly located friends over Live.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

CSI: Hard Evidence - Review and Achievements

CSI: Hard Evidence is a game based on the very popular TV show. I'll say right upfront that I don't watch CSI, so I'm not really sure how true to the show it is. It does use actors and settings from the program. On the downside, the character models are primitive so the likeness between some of the actors and their virtual avatars is not terribly convincing.

The game consists of five cases that you must solve using techniques culled from CSI shows. You visit crime scenes, collect evidence like fingerprints and blood samples, interrogate suspects, and piece together the details of the case. It's all done in a point and click mechanic similar to PC adventure games of a bygone time. The gameplay works pretty well, though I couldn't shake the feeling that it would be a lot easier to interact with a mouse rather than a gamepad.

On the plus side, the cases are pretty compelling. Each one weaves a pretty interesting story, and there are always multiple suspects so it's not easy to narrow down who the guilty party is. The voice acting is mostly solid, which is good because a lot of your time is spent questioning witnesses and grilling suspects.

The game is also highly accessible. There are no tests of speed or dexterity can take as long as you need and skill with a controller is not mandatory. The game also provides hints if you want them at any time, though using hints hurts your final rating for the case.

The downside of the game is that it gets pretty repetitive once you learn the format. You find the clues, you process them in the same ways, and you click through conversation options until the suspect cracks and gives away key information. I found the first couple cases pretty enjoyable, but by the end I was mostly going through the motions.

I was also frustrated by some unfairly hidden clues. As an example, one case hinged on finding a matchbook in the back seat of an impounded cab. The cab was dark, and for some reason the garage where we were keeping it was poorly lit as well. So you have to fumble around in the dark until you put the cursor over the matchbook by chance, THEN the game lets you turn on your flashlight, and only then can you find the matchbook. Couldn't I use the flashlight from the start? Or better yet, could we set up some lights while inspecting a vehicle for evidence?

The Achievements are not well done, but they're definitely a quick source of 1000 points. There are only five awards, one for solving each case. You can beat the case with any rating and still get the Achievement, so it doesn't matter whether you deduce the facts on your own merits or make full use of every hint in the game. I'd estimate that it took me about 8 hours to beat the game and get all the points. Oh, and all the icons are the same crappy picture shown above...weak!

Still, I'll give CSI credit for what it is. It's a short but relatively well constructed foray into the world of a crime-scene investigator. Plus it's not every game where you have to swab DNA samples from both sides of a used condom, prompting your wife to ask, "What kind of game are you PLAYING?!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Grand Theft Auto IV: A Review and A Revelation

I finished the first DLC expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV (The Lost and the Damned) this weekend. I have very little to say about it. If you love GTA4 then you probably already bought it. If you were indifferent or worse, then definitely give it a miss. It's all the same GTA gameplay with a shorter, dumber story and less compelling characters than the original game.

I did like how they called their biker gang a "motorcycle club" as if driving around on a Harley and beating people to death with a baseball bat is akin to bridge or needlepoint.

As I was playing the expansion though, I had a bit of a revelation that totally changed my view of the GTA games. You see, Rockstar has made a lot of these GTA games over the years (don't let the "4" fool you...there's like a hundred of these things) and they all follow the same formula: amazing technology showcased in a freeform universe, but with absolute SHIT gameplay. GTA4 stepped it up a notch by introducing high quality presentation, a relatively cohesive story (though it falls apart in places), and some genuinely sympathetic characters. And like always, as a piece of technology GTA4 is light years ahead of the competition. No virtual city has been more detailed and plausible than Liberty City. But the gameplay? SAME OLD SHIT.

Let me give an example of how a mission in GTA4 works to illustrate this concept. Spoilers abound, so if you want to play the game without hearing about one of the main missions, stop reading now:

Background - Your cousin Roman has been kidnapped by some nogoodnicks as a means of revenge against some of your previous actions. He's being held captive in an abandoned building near an oil refinery. You have to rush over to his location, gun it out with a small army of goons, and save him.

Attempt 1 - I picked up the mission halfway across the city from the abandoned building where Roman was being held, so the first thing I had to do was commandeer a vehicle and haul my butt over there. As I drove, my enemy Dimitri called to gloat about how he's got my cousin and there's nothing I can do about it. We hurl some generic threats and insults at each other. It's a moderately long drive and the conversation goes on far longer than is necessary. I finally arrived and stormed the building, killing wave after wave of enemies. You have to wind your way up to the top of the building and at each level more enemies spawn to attack you.

The first attempt seems to be going well...I've eliminated most of the enemies and haven't taken much damage. I'm being very careful to kill all the enemies on each level so nobody can get me from behind while I'm engaged with forward opposition. Imagine my surprise when I get near the top and suddenly find that I'm taking copious amounts of damage but no new enemies are visible. I quickly look around and discover that some baddies have spawned BEHIND ME on the metal girders supporting the buildings roof. So what, were these guys hiding in the rafters all day waiting for an intruder to show up so they could fire machine guns at him while precariously balanced 30 feet up in the air? That makes sense. In any case, this little ambush costs me most of my health and the next little group of enemies only need one shot to finish me off. Mission restart.

Attempt 2 - I start all the way back where I picked up the mission. Grab a car, endure another round of Dimitri's now-repetitive taunting, and arrive at the building. Same gunfight as before, but this time I know about the baddies that suddenly appear on the rafters. I blast them before they can get me this time, finish off the last group of thugs, and go through a door to an office. Another goon is using my cousin as a human shield and threatens to kill him. A prompt appears telling me that I need to pick off the bad guy before he kills Roman. Forget for a moment that it makes no sense for this guy to assassinate the person he's using as a shield. The game warns me that I need to use a steady, controlled weapon so I don't hit Roman. Bad news kids...I just got through a huge gunfight with a bunch of heavily armed killers and I didn't do it with a popgun - I was obviously using my assault rifle. I switch to my pistol and take aim at the bad guy, but IT'S TOO LATE! He kills my cousin, thus assuring a quick death for himself and a quick trip to Game Over land for me. Mission restart.

Attempt 3 - Steal car, call from Dimitri, battle through refinery, don't forget ninjas on the rafters. This time I make sure to equip my pistol BEFORE entering the office. Now that I know it's coming, I'm easily able to snipe the bad guy resulting in a cool slow-mo cutscene where the bullet just misses Roman and kills the bad guy. Awesome, though I'd have enjoyed it more if I weren't seething from having to go through this whole thing three times. Roman and I escape from the back entrance, head down a stairwell, and jump into the only available getaway vehicle, a semi truck. Roman starts shouting that the police are coming (you can hear sirens) and we need to leave quickly. Not wanting to risk a police chase in a semi, I make haste to escape. Unfortunately we're in the middle of the refinery and it's not clear which way we need to go. I turn the wrong way, realize my mistake, and carefully maneuver the truck to turn around. In doing so, I accidentally tap (emphasis on TAP) one of the many barrels littered throughout the place. It instantly explodes, as does (I wish I was kidding) our truck with us in it. Mission restart.

I got it on the fourth try, but only through gritted teeth. This is the essence of GTA games: you die over and over until you figure out how the designers wanted you to solve the mission. Every failure necessitates a restart from the beginning and a lot of pointless do-over bullshit. It's aggravating and unfair (they love to use tricks like making enemies invincible until they arrive at a preordained showdown location), but most of all IT ISN'T FUN.

I've always wondered how the same people who are so brilliant when it comes to world-building and utilizing technology could be so ignorant when it comes to making the dang thing fun. But while playing the expansion, I had my revelation and it was all instantly clear:


Despises them, as one would feel about crawling vermin that one might find in one's basement. The whole of the GTA universe was created as a giant monkey trap for gamers, who are then summarily tortured for the amusement of Rockstar's employees. It's not that they aren't competent enough to make a fun game that would complement their technological's that THEY DON'T WANT TO. The sprawling, detailed world is the sweet scent to draw you in to the Venus flytrap that is their shitty gameplay.

Dear Rockstar: I am on to you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A New Gaming First for Me

Having been a gamer for over 25 years, I've pretty much seen and done just about everything in video games. But "The Lost and the Damned" - a downloadable expansion for Grand Theft Auto IV - provided me with a brand new experience.


Yup, I was just minding my own business watching a cutscene depicting negotiations between a biker thug and a corrupt politician when what should appear in all its fully rendered glory but the politician's one-eyed trouser snake, dangling for all to see. YIKES!

I find it ironic that, given the misogynistic leanings of the gaming industry in general (not to mention GTA in specific), my "bare crotch viewing scorecard" now reads 1 for the gentlemen and 0 for the ladies. It's not the way I would have drawn things up, but such is the life of a gamer!