Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Achievement Sites

While Rachel and I continue our march through Assassin's Creed 2, I thought I'd take a little time to highlight two of my favorite Achievement sites on the web.

The first is It's a site that catalogs Achievements for every game in existence, including many games that haven't even been released yet. How they get their information so early, I'll never know. Maybe they have wiretaps in Microsoft's office or something.

In any case, this site is invaluable to Achievement hunters for several reasons, but by far the biggest is its active community. It is THE place where Achievement "enthusiasts" meet up to discuss strategies for obtaining tough awards, find fixes for Achievement glitches (an all too common issue), and make friends who are willing to work towards online awards. Rachel and I call this last group "fake friends", people on your Xbox 360 Friends list that you've never met in person, but who you've played games with online. Fake friends are particularly critical for getting the Achievements in older games for which the online community may have dried up years ago.

If you're ever confused about the requirements for a particular Achievement, or just stumped on how to accomplish it, head over to to find an answer. Between their guides, road maps, and forums, you'll almost surely find an answer.

The other site I use consistently is While the first site I listed concentrates on acquiring and cataloging Achievements, True Achievements is about the statistics around these awards. One thing they've done is to solve a long-standing issue with Achievements - that the points assigned to various awards don't accurately reflect the difficulty of obtaining it. Consider that two minutes of Avatar: Burning Earth yields the same 1000 points that one would obtain from 250+ hours of Infinite Undiscovery. When you think about it, that's not very fair. What these guys have done is created a system in which awards are analyzed based on their difficulty, a function of the ratio of the number of people to get the award to the total number of people who played the game. Then they assign a new value (True Achievement Score) by multiplying the original score by that ratio.

Confused? That's okay, the point is that it makes rare Achievements far more valuable than easy ones. It's not a perfect system, but it goes a long way to making Gamer Scores more fair. Best of all, it lets you track statistical measures like which of your Achievements are the most rare, what percentage of awards you've earned from the library of games you've played, and where you rank against all other Xbox 360 users out there. There's a mountain of data to muck about with if you're obsessed with Achievements like I am.

So if you're ever looking to become an Achievement hound, I recommend these two sites. They'll give you a nice boost down the path to a huge Gamer Score!

WAA - Need for Speed: Undercover

This week's WAA go to Need for Speed: Undercover. It's racing, but with some nice game mechanics and a silly, over the top plot to keep you entertained.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Apprentice Mechanic"
You just have to modify a car in any way, which could be as simple as changing the color. Maybe I'll see you on the track someday...I'll be the one in the custom metallic pink sports car with black flame decals on the sides.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "First of Many"
You need to win an online race against 7 other human players, a tall task for two reasons. First, the game doesn't have a huge user base so you'll rarely see that many people in a lobby. Second, there are some talented (and downright obsessive) racers out there, so your chances of matching up with seven people and being the best of the group isn't great. Try "Cops and Robbers" mode for a better chance of scoring a win.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Notorious"
For this one, you have to complete 119 online races. Why 119? Because it's 9-1-1 backwards. So as brutal as accumulating over a hundred races can be, at least they didn't ask for the full 900. Note that you don't have to win any of those events, but rather just compete.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Wasting Tax Dollars"
Some events in the game require you to do a certain amount of property damage while being chased by the police. Then you have to escape. For this one, you need to hit 100,000 dollars worth of damage, which will mostly come in the form of wrecked police cruisers. The irony of this award's title is that the game's plot involves you, an undercover government agent, infiltrating a street racing gang to recover valuable evidence. To gain their trust, you have to do a bunch of racing around and smashing up police cars. I think the whole operation could be safely referred to as a waste of tax dollars.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Aficionado"
The icons are not terribly impressive for this game (though better than last week's offering). However, I find it amusing that an award for collecting street racing cars is represented by what appears to be the guy from Monopoly.

Achievement Set Rating - 5
A very average set, with no egregious issues (aside from that 119 online wins BS) and no standout Achievements. The icons are thoroughly mediocre as well.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 4
As far as racing games go, this is one of the easier games in the genre. Some of the Achievements will take a while, but there's nothing terribly difficult here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 - Hot Tag!

Scientists' Stats -
Time Played: 8hrs 45min
Last Achievement Earned: The Conspirators
Last Significant Event: Solved Glyph 6


Jeff last signed off with "The real question is: do you think it's an accurate depiction of what 15th century Florence would look like? And another question for you Rachel...what part of the game is unchanged that definitely should have been fixed?

I'm pretty sure the first question is rhetorical as Jeff knows full well I am no expert on 15th Century Florence but I certainly agree that it's very cool to go running around with Ezio and recognize parts of the city. As for the second question, boy howdy(!) do I ever have an answer!!!!

Assassins should act like fucking assassins! Just as Altair in ACI, Ezio goes about killing targets with as much attention getting prowess as a whore in church. It really makes no sense whatsoever that the game punishes you for not walking down the damn street like a sneaky bastard but barely puts you out at all if you attract the attention of every city guard whilst making a kill. Dumb, dumb, dumb! The game should encourage and reward you for being sneaky (to review, you're a fucking assassin!); it would make the game more interesting and realistic. (Ubisoft, please refer to Hitman if you need help with this.)

Ok, with that out of the way let's talk awesome. Climbing about buildings like a juiced monkey goes without saying but one thing I've found surprisingly fun is building up the country villa. This appears to be just a fancy way of making bank but it's still fun. There are a few game events there and it's where your mom and sister are living. Sis actually keeps the books and runs things while you go about pissing off guards and shoving obnoxious guitar players around.

Also, the outfit, while conspicuous as all get-out, rocks! The added assassin's blade just makes things double cool and I don't even mind the arm cape. That's right, apparently Ezio can't spring for a full cape and he goes round with this less-than-halfsy thing that covers his left arm. He must like it a lot though as he's always pulling it over his arm during the game. And since I'm talking personal looks I'm also going to mention that I like Ezio's video game lack of 5 o'clock shadow which I saw a lot of in the trailers.

The guards are quite gentlemanly in this game and do their damnedest to not attack Ezio all at once. At most you might have two guards attack together but the rest hover about and wait for their turn to die. This led to the best quote by a scientist so far: What's with the gentleman fighting, Ezio? I just want to stab him in the fucking back!

And now we punt... So Jeff, how do you find travel in the game altered from ACI? Better, worse? And do please explain the efficacy of the wanted poster locales. Also, I complained a bit about the non-cohesiveness of Ezio's life as an assassin. I get the impression this doesn't bother you as much. Do you feel like Ezio is working towards some definable goal? And how do you feel about your side job as a grave robber?


Okay, travel. In AC1, every mission starts with you in a secret assassin base in a remote town far away from the action. So you have to run down a mountain, grab a horse, ride for what feels like forever, infiltrate the city in which your next target resides, sneak through town to find him, and then lay his ass to rest. To review, the fun part (the assassination) is preceded by a bunch of long, dull schlepping from one locale to another. Not good.

In AC2, you don't have to return to your home base unless you want to do so. Thus, no running down a mountain. There's fast travel between cities you've visited, so no grabbing a horse and riding forever (or at least, just once per city). Also, Ubisoft realized that sneaking into town every time was dumb so they got rid of it. Now you can just walk right in through the nearest gate. Sneaking through town? That's still there. But if you're counting, of the five barriers I listed that blocked you from making with the stabby-time in AC1, four have been eliminated in the sequel. Not too shabby!

The wanted posters...these are strange. The game has a "notoriety" meter, such that committing illegal acts in front of witnesses increases your notoriety and makes it more likely that guards will recognize and attack you. The easiest way to reduce notoriety is to tear down wanted posters. It's a simple enough mechanic and I endorse it. However, the locations of the posters are really bizarre. You'll often find them on the side of a building, three stories up, facing a blank, windowless wall. Who exactly would see that poster and subsequently recognize you?

"Grave Robbing" is actually a fun little side quest where you hunt down the tombs of famous assassin's from history by working your way through Prince of Persia style obstacles. Once you get to the tomb, you get treasure and a seal. Collect all six seals and you get access to Altair's assassin cloak from the original AC. Sweet!

We had our first real "assassin" experience last night. Some nefarious conspirator was holed up in a tower with archers guarding his position. He was trying to rouse the rabble into revolting against the city leaders. But I was able to outsmart him by climbing up to where his guards were patrolling and taking them out one by one. By the time I was done, the poor bastard had no idea that he was hanging out by himself in his tower. He never even saw me as I crept up from behind and silenced his heresy forever.

And back to Rachel. It seems like the story is still too nebulous for you (I don't disagree). Maybe it's missing a character to give it some cohesion. What character would help? A sidekick? Love interest? A better defined villain?

Also, let's say Ubisoft greenlights Assassin's Creed 3 (pretty much a lock). They come to you and say, "Rachel, you're our biggest fan. It's your pick - where and when is AC3 set?" What's your choice. Bear in mind that the general parameters of the game (running around a few cities, climbing buildings, assassinating targets) will be the same. A place or time that works well with conspiracy theories would also be a plus.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 - Scientists Gone Stabby


Title: Assassin's Creed II

Publisher: Ubisoft (2010)

Scientists' Stats -
Time Played: 6hrs 43min
Last Achievement Earned: Steal Home
Last significant Event: Assassinated Stefano Da Bagnone

I was dubious at the outset when a street brawl was the opening scene of the game. I mean, seriously, I signed up for the cool armor and the awesome arm cape (more on that later) and I'm punching guys in a street brawl??? But on the upside I did like the interaction of Ezio with his brother Federico. Then of course they go free running along roofs and other cool shit so I'm like, ok, the brawling is over and now we can get serious. But then Ezio goes running across roofs and slips through the window of his girlfriend's house. Hmmm, what kind of game is this?

So thankfully you do eventually get round to your awesome armor and the super rad outfit. But before and after that there's all this meandering about getting to know Ezio's family. Let me be clear that I really like Ezio's family and the development of his relationship with them is definitely a strength of the game but really? I need to spend HOURS on this? I believe my initial response was, "I'd like a little less family and a little more stabby." As Zero Punctuation mentions regarding the first game in the series it sometimes feels like it could be called Faffing About Creed.

Eventually the stabby does come along but the development is still slow. Also, I feel like there's no cohesiveness to Ezio's actions. He sort goes round taking instructions from anyone. It appears he's on the right track but these Assassins are a group, they have a CREED for crap's sake, and I haven't seen any other assassins yet. Where are they? Why did they not come to talk to Ezio as soon as he took over for his father?

So I turned to my gaming expert partner and he doesn't know where all these assassins are either. But he did point out that many assassination assignments come via carrier pigeon and we can assume those are from the Assassins. Well done Ubisoft! Carrier pigeons. Totally boss!

Also, I was complaining about the graphics not being as good as the first game. Jeff asks... do you think it's because the graphics aren't done as well or that it's the inherent differences of the setting? I definitely think it's because the art is not as well done. In ACI the landscapes/city views were vibrant and absolutely phenomenal. In ACII the immediate surroundings are as detailed and awesome as ever but in the Eagle Views the far away stuff just sort of dematerializes into a mist. Lamers!

Another question for Jeff: What do you think about the plot development in ACII vs ACI? Oh, and what, so far, do you think is the most improved aspect from I to II?


Well, we're six hours in and I definitely don't hate AC2. There's a lot of improvement here, though a few aspects are perplexingly similar to the last game. Ezio is a far more compelling character than Altair was...we've gone from dim-witted but cocky errand boy to self-motivated vengeance seeker. That's a big step up.

But the biggest improvement is the story structure. In AC1, you're told to kill a bunch of people because...they're bad? It really wasn't all that clear. Only late in the game did they start to hint at a greater conspiracy, which was suddenly revealed at the very end. Shoehorning all the interesting bits into the last hour of the game was clumsy and made the rest of the game boring. In AC2, we're only a few hours in and have already been embroiled in conspiracies and political intrigue. Best of all, there have been specific, clear reasons for assassinating each person we've killed so far. It gives the player's actions context within the plot.

Of course, there are still some mysteries, but that SHOULD be the case. We just have to hope that they tie up most of the loose ends by the game's finish.

Rachel is not digging the landscape art as much as AC1. I agree that the game seems to have more fog obscuring the horizon, which is a downer. However, I have to say that I'm enjoying the cities a little more this time simply because I've been to Florence, so I can compare the visuals with the real thing as I remember it. It's an interesting experience to be playing a game and suddenly think, "I remember that church!" The real question is: do you think it's an accurate depiction of what 15th century Florence would look like?

And another question for you Rachel...what part of the game is unchanged that definitely should have been fixed?

Assassin's Creed 2 - Tag Team Style

Rachel and I have started playing through Assassin's Creed 2. She's a long time lover of AC's art style, while I'm a long time hater of the original's story and gameplay. But the art looked just as good for AC2, and I had heard that the story and gameplay were improved. In other words, it was just too tempting to resist giving it a try.

The usual pattern is that I play through a game and then give my opinions. This time I'm mixing it up a bit. Since Assassin's Creed is one of Rachel's pet franchises, we're going to do a tag-team running commentary so people can keep tabs on where we are in the game and how we're enjoying it. This should be entertaining!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Infinite Undiscovery - Achievements

NOTE: Rachel pointed out in the comments that I've been abbreviating Infinite Undiscovery "ID" rather than "IU". I have no reason for this...the best excuse I could give is that the game's title is so nonsensical, I got confused and never caught the error. Whatever, I'm sticking with ID.

I've mentioned before that Achievements can have either a positive or a negative influence on one's enjoyment of a game, depending on how they're used. ID is a fantastic example of the dark side of Achievements. If it had featured an ordinary set (or no Achievements at all), I would have played through the game once on the normal difficulty, enjoyed the crafting and Capell's character development, disliked the story and the AI, and probably walked away thinking "Eh, below average but not terrible." Instead, I engaged in a 250 hour death struggle with this demonic entity disguised as a simple piece of software, leaving it dead and me mortally wounded (or at least psychologically wounded). To illustrate this point, I'm going to go through the requirements for some of the Achievements in ID (divided into GOOD, BAD, and UGLY). There are Spoilers in here, so proceed at your own risk!

"Guardian" - GOOD
During one of the game's events, you need to escort some villagers across a monster-infested desert so they can found a new town. If you perform this task without allowing any villagers to die, you get Guardian. This Achievement is well-designed, because it's easy to lose a villager if you aren't paying attention, but with careful planning and a watchful eye, it isn't too difficult.

"Time for Glasses?" - BAD
Play the game for 40 hours. These "play for X hours" Achievements are not uncommon, and I don't really understand them. Is this supposed to be an accomplishment? What if I can beat the game in under 40 hours...should I just stand in a corner until the award pops? Of course, if you want to complete the set then this one won't be an issue.

"Filthy Rich" - UGLY
You get this one by accumulating the maximum amount of cash (ID calls it "Fol") that can be carried - 99,999,999 Fol. Okay kids, time for some math. After you beat the game you can go down into an optional dungeon. On the fourth floor, past a small group of enemies, is a side room with a monster disguised as a chest. If you kill it, it drops about 60,000 Fol, the maximum monetary drop for any recurring (i.e. not a boss) enemy. Then you can leave the floor and come back - voila, it respawns! If you're really clever and make use of Capell's enchanting techniques, you can (temporarily) create an effect that triples cash drops, thus earning 180,000 each time. It takes an average of about two minutes to defeat the enemies, kill the chest monster, and run back to the teleporter that takes you to the previous floor. So that's 90,000 Fol per minute, not including time spent fighting down to the fourth floor and back when you need more supplies or just want to quit the game for a while. So to accumulate max gold, it would take 1111 minutes, or about 18.5 hours. Again, that's just the "killing the same chest over and over" portion.

Here's my question - why such an insanely high number??? When I finished the game, I had about 7 million Fol, plenty to buy everything in the game. 100 million Fol might as well be infinity, because there isn't even anything you can buy with all that money. This is just a stupid, arbitrary challenge thrown in to be obnoxious. It's like some kind of reverse-intelligence test (one that I failed miserably) in which accomplishing the goal proves that you're an idiot for trying in the first place. "Filthy Rich" is the Achievement system at it's's not creative, it adds nothing to the game, it's just tortuous.

"Big Daddy's Back" - GOOD
In the same dungeon with the respawning chest, you can find your dead teammate Sigmund. If you beat him in a one-on-one battle with Capell, he'll then rejoin your team and you get this oddly titled award. Here we have an Achievement that rewards exploration (finding the optional boss) and strategy (must win a solo fight, the only one in the game besides the tutorial). Plus there's good reason to want to do this one, because Sigmund is a powerful ally. If they could only all be like this!

"Seraphic Gatekeeper" - BAD
To get this one, you have to defeat the Ethereal Queen (the game's hardest boss, at the end of the optional dungeon) on Infinity difficulty. On the surface, this one seems similar to "Big Daddy's Back", so why is this one bad? Because of those tricky little words "on Infinity difficulty". That is, the hardest difficulty setting. Which is only unlocked after beating the game on Hard difficulty. Which, in turn, is only unlocked after beating the game on Normal difficulty. So what this Achievement is basically saying is: beat this moderately long (and not very fun) game THREE times and then you can take a crack at earning this award. I think it should be fairly clear why the full set took me 250 hours to finish.

"Compulsive" - UGLY
It's like tri-Ace is taunting me with the Achievement names. Rachel mentioned in a previous comment that I was using pages of material while working on this game, and she wasn't kidding. For this one, you need to have possessed (and in just one playthrough) every item in the game. There are 880 different items, and no way to know (without a checklist, hence the papers) what you've found and what you're missing. But beyond the sheer number of items, it's essentially impossible to collect all the items without foreknowledge of the game. Consider:

- At least one town is wiped off the map during the game, and any unique items available in its shops or through side quests there will be lost if you haven't found them.
- The items available in other shops change over time, so you can miss items if you wait too long.
- Some items are in "one time only/can never return" dungeons. Even worse, some are in chests that can only be reached by one specific character (out of the 15 you could have selected to accompany you). Better choose wisely!
- Finally, some items are dropped by specific enemies with rare frequency. For example, there's a fight involving three giants (and a bunch of random soldiers) during a castle assault. The giants have a small (say 20%) chance of dropping a "Giant Wristband". It's the only place in the game where you could possibly get one, as there are no other similar giants and no way to buy or craft Giant Wristbands. What are the odds that a person unaware of this fact would happen to get the wristband they needed just by chance? And that's not the only instance where you can miss a unique drop.

There's a big difference between Difficult and Unfair when it comes to Achievements. "Compulsive" is the definition of UNFAIR. Even knowing the exact location of every item in the game, it still took a 20 page checklist and MANY HOURS of work to accomplish it.

My only consolation? I'm done with this stupid game forever. Now I can move on to some other ridiculous Achievement set that will drive me crazy...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WAA - SEGA Superstars Tennis

Time for an Infinite Undiscovery break...let's give out some WAA! This week's game is Sega's answer to Mario Tennis, SEGA Superstars Tennis.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Space Channel 5"
It’s rare for an online Achievement to be the easiest, but in this case you just have to watch two other people play a match over Live. It can’t get much easier than that!

The "Mile High Club" Award: "To be this good takes AGES"
Emphasis (and obscure Sega pun) theirs. For this one, you need to beat every challenge in Superstar mode (this game's version of Career mode) with a ranking of AAA. Some of the requirements for AAA are just sick (particularly in the Jet Set Radio area), and you also have to win all your matches without giving up a single point. I played Sega's Genesis collection a while back and was finally introduced to Alex Kidd. Remembering the tennis-related indignities I suffered at his hands, I made sure to drop him into many, many death pits in revenge.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Top Gun"
Hit 100 aces...that is, serves that the computer can't return. There's nothing complicated about this challenge (just hit the ball hard and towards a corner), but it does take a while.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Cameo Appearance"
Some of the courts have bystanders to watch you compete. For this Achievement, you have to hit a winning shot that pegs one of the onlookers.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: n/a
Every single icon is a bronze, silver, or gold version of this star. Weak sauce, Sega. How about classic characters, or something tennis related?

Achievement Set Rating - 6
Unlike most sports titles they cover a good variety of activities and don’t over represent the online portion. But the icon set is a product of lazy ineptitude.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 4
The first 800 or so points are a piece of cake, but beware those final few challenges. According to, a website that analyzes Achievements statistically, only 2% of people who have tried this game have earned "To be this good takes AGES".

Infinite Undiscovery - Gameplay Mechanics

Combat is only one aspect of an RPG. In this post, I'll look at some of the other gameplay mechanics in ID.

Story Progression/Exploration
RPGs range from wide open worlds (Oblivion, Fallout) to strictly linear adventures (Eternal Sonata, Enchanted Arms). Which you prefer is a matter of taste, although even largely linear games can feature some side quests and optional dungeons for the completionists to explore. ID is heavily skewed towards the linear end of the scale, with a plot that drags you from one task to the next and minimal side tracks to be found. There are some optional quests (often well hidden...see below) but they're understated and the rewards are largely inconsequential. Also, ID only has one optional dungeon and it's not available until you beat the game, so there's not much value to exploration.

Unlike exploration/side questing, the crafting system is thorough and very useful. Enemies drop components that can be used by your various teammates to synthesize weapons, armor, and other items. Some of the most powerful equipment in the game is available solely through crafting, so it's a good idea to work on your team's skills early and often (hint: especially Edward's blacksmith skills!). Crafting is also a good way to drum up some quick cash by turning less valuable components into pricier items. Overall the system is well constructed, though the success rate on rare items is gratingly low (your attempts at synthesis can fail) even if your characters are high level crafters. Still, I'd count this as something the designers got right.

Kill enemies and go up levels. There's not much more to it than that. You can't assign skills to your characters or control how their attribute points are distributed. The entire process is automated. It's nice that your characters get stronger over time, but it's not something you'll give much thought unless you get to an area where you're clearly under-leveled.

Event Challenges
To mix things up, the game will occasionally give you little events with specific requirements to proceed. Examples include defending a convoy of villagers as they move through a monster infested desert, firing catapults at a well-defended enemy castle, and rescuing a child from a flying monster by shooting it with an arrow. I found these challenges to be more annoying than anything, but I'm willing to concede that the designers were just trying to throw a few curveballs for fun and that's an admirable goal. None of them are overly difficult so even if you don't like them, you shouldn't really be impeded for long.

Interacting with the Townsfolk
And now we come to the big one...the DUMBEST design decision I've ever seen in an RPG. Here's how this works: if you want bonus items and side quests, you need to talk to all the people in the various towns. A given town could have anywhere from 10 to 30 people with whom you can converse. So far so good...that's pretty standard stuff. But wait! Most of the time, the person won't give the side quest or bonus item to you (Capell)...they'll only cough up the goods if you're linked to one of your teammates. You accomplish this by finding said teammate in town and pushing a couple buttons to tell them that they should follow you around. And when I say "linked to one of your teammates", I mean ONE SPECIFIC character. That's right...if you talk to a guard wandering around in the courtyard by yourself, he'll talk about the weather, or the health of the king, or his sore bunions, or whatever. Same deal if you're linked to Edward, or Eugene, or Aya, etc. But if you're linked to Rucha? Now he suddenly remembers the super-important quest he was going to ask you to do for a reward.

So let's say you wanted to be thorough and try every combination of teammate links and villagers in conversation. There are 17 people on the team that can link with Capell, plus he can chat with villagers by himself, for a total of 18 different combinations. With an average of 20 people to a town, you'd have to initiate 360 (the irony) conversations to be sure that you weren't missing any secrets. Now bear in mind that there are several towns spread out over the game, and you're starting to get a handle on how ridiculous this task is. Hold it though, because things get much worse. Some quests can only be initiated AFTER specific plot events. That means that you'll need to go through all those combinations MULTIPLE times just to be sure that the guy who had nothing of interest to say earlier has suddenly come up with an important task for you. All told, you'd need to go through a couple thousand conversations just to have a chance at finding every side quest and secret item in the game. can just read a walkthrough, which is what anyone with sense will do.

I'm sorry, but any system in which the special quests are so well hidden that you'd never know they were there except by random chance is a dumb one, and you can't tell me otherwise.

That concludes most of what I have to say about Infinite Undiscovery, except for one more vital section. Next time: The Achievements!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Infinite Undiscovery - Battle Mechanics

ID is an action RPG. There's none of that sissy "you take your turn and I take mine" stuff here. If you want to swing your sword, you press a button. Special attack? That's another button. Battle technique? You have to hold a button down. Though ID may be an RPG, the fighting system has more in common with Soul Caliber than Final Fantasy.

I don't have a problem with that. Turn based combat can be pretty dull in these Japanese style RPGs. The Western trend towards action based combat as seen in Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Fable 2 is a positive direction for the genre. But there's a big difference between those games and ID. In the examples I listed, you play a single character fighting on his or her own. In ID, you have a party of four (usually), and the number and strength of enemies reflects that. Since you can only effectively control one person at a time, that means you get to deal with the AI. And that's exactly where the system breaks down...

The first thing to understand is that you have almost no control over your teammates. You can't tell them who to attack, when to use magic, when to get out of harm's way because they're about to die...nothing. The best you can do is give vague group based instructions like "don't use magic ever" or "always attack what I'm attacking". Then you cross your fingers and hope they listen.

But they don't. At least not consistently. Instead they go chasing after enemies before you've recovered from the last fight. They charge headlong into enemies that are about to unleash super attacks, even while you're desperately trying to get out of the way. They don't bother to heal themselves or each other, even when they're close to death. And God forbid anything should happen to Capell. If you fall in battle, then you get to play a fun game I call "Is one of these retards going to notice I'm dead and fix me up?"

The AI is just plain terrible in this game, and the worst part is that you're pretty much forced to count on your teammates anyway. Particularly at the highest difficulty levels, groups of enemies are too powerful to handle unless your squad is pulling its weight. Boss monsters can often kill you with one ill-timed combo attack, leaving you little option but to hope that one of your teammates will give you a hand.

The irony is that because your party is so hell-bent on diving into the fray and getting themselves killed while ignoring any pretense of teamwork, the best role for you to play is often babysitter. Just stand back from the fight and revive your stricken allies while they do the work. Playing this game on the highest difficulty is like chaperoning three 12 year old kids through an amusement park after they've polished off a case of Mountain Dew.

To add to the frustration, all aspects of battle are in real time. That means that if you open your item menu to use a healing item, the enemies still smack you around as you look through the list. This leads to annoying situations where you realize that your teammates are all down and the enemies are swarming straight at you - you can't fight without your allies but you can't revive them without surfing through the menu for a minute, during which time you'll be killed anyway. All of this could have been solved if the designers would have thought to put some shortcuts or hotkeys in the game. Say, pressing right bumpers uses a revive potion or something. But no, you can't even SORT your items to put the useful ones at the top! You have to open the menu, pick the Items tab, then scroll way down the list until you find whatever you need, all while getting battered by enemies.

Other complaints:
- There's only two settings for your allies use of their abilities - never use them or ALL THE TIME. They never conserve magic points against weaker enemies or ones that are already almost dead.
- Every time someone uses an ability, they shout it's name. I heard the phrase "Grinn Valesti!" so many times that I swear I hear it in my sleep.
- There's a ton of backtracking in this game, and low-level enemies will continue to harass you long after it's worthwhile to fight them. There are a TON of enemies in this game, so going anywhere is a chore.
- Characters in your group get twice as much experience as characters sitting the bench. That makes sense, but it becomes all the more unnecessary to have a dozen people on the team. After all, most of them are going to fall behind and become useless anyway.
- Finally, Capell can use his flute in battle (remember, he's a musician). Theoretically this has beneficial effects. In reality, it's mostly useless and occasionally a pain in the butt. For example, there's a certain type of enemy that is invisible until Capell plays his flute near them (usually while getting whacked by said enemy). Then your teammates can attack it. But Capell still can't...if you want to help then you need to focus on one of your teammates, then hold down a button to activate a special move and wait for it to charge, and THEN you can join the fight. Only by that point, the enemy is probably invisible again, so you have to start the process over. I eventually gave up and just let the invisible guys pummel me while I played the flute nonstop, allowing my teammates to finish the baddies.

I wish that was it, but the design flaws don't end there. Next time, I'll talk about one of the dumbest game mechanics I've ever encountered.

Something you don't see in games designed for a Western audience...

I'm playing through Spectral Force 3 right now. It's one of those tactics games where everyone stands around on an isometric map and takes turns moving and attacking. It's a niche genre to be sure, but one I enjoy.

Anyway, it's been mostly standard stuff thus far, battling the usual assortment of soldiers, monsters, and the like. And then last night this...thing showed up as an enemy. I asked Rachel to take a couple pictures, because I don't know if people would believe my explanation:

Rachel's quote: "Are you fighting...Jesus?"

Uh, no. It's not Jesus. But it does seem to be an angel chained to a cross, being held up like some kind to totem by a goblin-thing. Here's the data screen for this enemy:

I find myself at a loss for words here. Being a person without a strong religious affiliation, I guess I'm not "offended"...more like baffled. If you're thinking it probably made sense within the context of the game's story, I can assure you that isn't the case.

In any case, Spectral Force 3 was originally released in Japan only, but was eventually translated into English and released here. I'm thinking that if they had it to do over again, the designers might have rethought this model a bit...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Infinite Undiscovery - Plot and Characters

250 hours. That's how long it took to finish Infinite Undiscovery with 1000 Achievement points. That's more time than it took to finish Oblivion AND Fallout 3, two notoriously lengthy (not to mention better) games. If there was ever any doubt that Achievements are driving me to madness, Infinite Undiscovery represents indisputable evidence.

Over the course of the week I'll be putting up some posts about the game. Mostly, I'll be talking about the NUMEROUS ways that it went wrong. Bear in mind that ID was not made by some fledgling company taking their first crack at a mainstream RPG. It was developed by Tri-Ace, the company that made the much-beloved Star Ocean series and is responsible for several other under-the-radar RPG gems, plus it was published by Square-Enix, a company best known for a little series called FINAL FANTASY...perhaps you've heard of it? With that combined track record, you'd expect them to be make a great game.

ID is not a great game. It's not even a good one. As is always the case with RPGs, it starts with the story. ID takes place in the kind of fantasy setting that makes perfect sense to Final Fantasy devotees and nobody else. It's a world where people use swords and bows to fight monsters but have magical teleporters to move from one area to another. Where towns are made up of an inn, an item shop, three little houses, and a gigantic castle in which the king lives. Where three paces away from town there are dangerous monsters just hanging out waiting to attack your characters.

In this world, the moon sprinkles magical beams (which look a lot like bright yellow rain) down on the earth. The moon magic is thus transferred to the people, with the amount of power received proportional to the phase of the moon at the time of their birth. Born under a full moon? You're going to be a mighty hero. New moon? Sorry, no magic powers for you, but can we interest you in a lifetime of prejudice and servitude?

Anyway, an evil empire has risen (because all video game empires are evil) and is siphoning away the power of the moon for themselves. To do this, they have built huge CHAINS that stretch from the surface of the planet to the moon. I have no idea how the chains steal moon power (maybe they hold it in place over the evil nation?) or how they were built in the first place, but that idea is really stupid both in terms of astronomy and practicality. Plus they just look ridiculous. The main plot thread of the game follows a group led by Sigmund, the mightiest hero in the land, that is attempting to "liberate" the moon by traveling around the world and destroying the chains.

That description makes it sound like Sigmund is our main protagonist. He's not. Enter Capell, a penniless musician who was born under a new moon. Capell is utterly unremarkable except for one bizarre coincidence...he looks EXACTLY like Sigmund. As in, they could be twins. Of course, Capell is a weakling and a coward, not a great hero like Sigmund. It should come as no big surprise that mistaken identity ensues and Capell gets dragged into the conflict against his will.

At this point, I'd like to give ID some rare praise - I liked the way they handled Capell as a character. He's your standard reluctant hero, a cowering whiner with a bit of a selfish streak. But there's two reasons why he works better than most reluctant heroes. First, he has good reason to be reluctant. After all, he's a musician, not a warrior. The first time he has to use a sword to defend himself, he holds it as one might hold a snake which may or may not be poisonous. Since he was born under a new moon, he has no powers and is portrayed as weaker than most average townspeople. When he says things like "I try to avoid trouble at all times" it seems like a pretty logical position for him to take. The other reason Capell works is that his transition from weakling to warrior is slow and believable. Even well into the second disc, Capell is unsure of himself. It takes a number of traumatic experiences to really inspire him into action. I'm sure a lot of people got tired of his whimpy attitude, but I found it more realistic than "zero to hero" in a few easy cutscenes.

The big twist comes at the end of the first disc, when Sigmund falls in battle (during a very confusing cutscene) against the top bad guy from the empire . The team decides that Sigmund's death will cause people to lose hope, and they need the support of the remaining nations that oppose the empire. But hey, here's a guy that recently joined our ranks and happens to look just like that a plan formulating? Capell has to pose as Sigmund and "lead" the team while anyone is watching. Despite the fact that Capell doesn't sound or act like Sigmund in any way, their plan works perfectly and every major world leader is completely fooled into thinking that he's Sigmund. As you might guess, eventually the truth comes out and Capell is forced to put his cowardly ways behind him and step forward to be the leader he never thought blah, blah, blah. The last half of the second disc is contrived and predictable, right down to the big showdown that finishes the game. SIDE NOTE: What you might NOT expect is that the final showdown occurs on the moon, which the team travels to by JOGGING UP ONE OF THE CHAINS. Good thing they weren't too tired from their little space jaunt to fight the bad guys at the top.

So to summarize, the plot to this game is both dull and rife with cliches. The whole thing really boils down to a long hike around the world to break some chains (each with requisite dungeon and boss battle) capped off by one last boss fight in an improbable locale. By RPG standards, that's not breaking any new ground. The game could work as a character-driven meditation on Capell's "coming of age", but unfortunately that doesn't work very well either. The problem is that while Capell is a pretty well-written character, the rest of the team (and there are a LOT of them) are boring, one-dimensional caricatures masquerading as a supporting cast. You've got the bossy love interest who turns out to be a princess. The swordsman with an attitude who doesn't want to follow orders. The big muscle guy who drinks and breaks things. The annoying kids who's mother thought they'd be safer with me (no child services in this world I guess). The egg-headed mage (Rachel felt bad for him because he carried a big pack with all our gear). The token female with enormous breasts. And on and on and on. Every time you get a handle on all the characters, some more show up to join the team out of nowhere. Christ, there's a big scene near the end where everyone talks about their individual motivations to fight (because apparently we're too thick to work it out by context) and I kept thinking "Who are all these people?" A note to Tri-Ace: I'd prefer four fully developed characters to a dozen half-baked ones.

So we've got an RPG with a dumb story and bad characters. Not a rousing beginning. Next time: gameplay aggravations. Hooray!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

WAA - 1 vs 100

This is it...the grant goes out in two days. Prepare for some crazy rambling thoughts on a variety of games next week.

But for now, here's this week's WAA for the free game that's taken Xbox Live by storm - 1 vs 100!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Go Streaking!"
You need to get five correct answers in a row. The way the game is set up, the questions start really easy and get progressively more difficult. So just make sure you're present for the beginning of a round and you shouldn't have much trouble.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Quick Draw"
Answers are multiple choice in 1 vs 100, and you get bonus points for answering quickly. If you're fast enough, you get an Instant Answer Bonus. But you have to be really fast...essentially so fast that you already knew the answer before the potential choices are shown. For this award, you need to get six Instant Answer Bonuses in one round. So for this one, you'll need a decent knowledge base and good reflexes. If you're having trouble, remember that there are frequent themed rounds, like television, movie quotes, science, etc. Pick a theme that caters to your strengths and you'll improve your chances immensely!

The "Seriously..." Award: "Trivia Fanatic"
Answer 500 don't even have to get them right!

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Low Rider"
An interesting twist in this need to instantly answer three questions in a row and get them all WRONG. You'll either need good luck or, ironically, you'll need to know what the correct answers are so you can avoid them!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Go Streaking!"
Mixed in with a fairly bland set is this lascivious suggestion...

Achievement Set Rating - 3
Well, the game is just answering trivia questions so there aren't really many possibilities. Still, the set is not terribly inspired and leans heavily on just playing the game a lot (500 total questions, 100 correct answers). Plus the icons are generic and lame. Overall, there's nothing egregiously wrong but definitely nothing to get excited about.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
Just keep banging away and you'll get them eventually. I had everything else wrapped up after about 300 questions, so then it was just a matter of mucking through another couple hundred for the last award.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

WAA - Portal: Still Alive

My grant goes out a week from Friday, so just one more week of light posting before the dam bursts. I've got lots to discuss here, including downloadable content for Mass Effect, nitpicks for Need For Speed, and my ongoing death-struggle with Infinite Undiscovery (SPOILER: It's almost over!).

For now, I'll hand out WAA for an arcade game that's close to my heart - Portal: Still Alive. For those who didn't originally play Portal as part of The Orange have my pity. But the good news is that Valve released Portal as a stand-alone for Xbox Live Arcade, with the same great gameplay for newbies and some new challenge maps to test veterans. Plus there's all new Achievements! Considering that Portal may well be the most complete video game experience (albeit for just a few hours) in existence, it's a bargain!

Here are the awards:

The "One With Combat"Award: "A Feeling Like Floating"
For this one, you need to dissolve an automated turret. That may sound difficult since you don't get any weapons in Portal, but it's actually pretty simple. You can drop one into a corrosive pit or, even more satisfying, pick one up from behind and carry it through a security field.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Out of the Blue"
Very tricky. Once you've upgraded your portal gun so it can fire both blue and orange portals, you need to only go through orange portals (and hence, fall out of blue portals) for the rest of the game. This one can be surprisingly tricky, as there are portions of the game where they clearly want you to alternate portals. You'll have to come up with some alternate strategies, and save often in case you make a mistake!

The "Seriously..." Award: "Vanilla Crazy Cake"
You have to beat all the advanced chambers (about 20) to unlock this award. It's not too bad though, once you get the hang of the game.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Like a Rat"
This one is a puzzle in itself. You have to get yourself trapped in a room with no way to escape. Of course, the tests are designed to prevent that from happening so you won't do it by accident. Need a hint? Here's one method (highlight): in test chamber 13, try to get all the cubes on one side of the door separating the two rooms and yourself on the other.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Like a Rat"
You'll feel like this many times while playing Portal...

Achievement Set Rating - 10
The perfect way to do an Arcade set. There's a good mix of easy and difficult Achievements, and you'll be rewarded for trying different approaches while exploring thoroughly. There's no real grinding to suffer, the pictures and titles are great, and you even unlock Gamerpics as you work through the game. Valve, I salute you!

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 6
This will be highly variable depending on your previous Portal experience. A veteran player will breeze through the game and have only mild difficulty with the advanced chambers. A neophyte, on the other hand, will come along more slowly. The key point is that the game does a great job of teaching you the mechanics slowly, and it's a lot of fun as you learn.