Thursday, July 22, 2010

Metacritic and the 360: Over and Under Rated Games

If you don't know about Metacritic, it's a review site for several different forms of media (movies, video games, etc.) that goes about business a little differently than most sites. Specifically, they compile ratings from around the web and average them into one score. The idea is that this process is more "fair", as the individual biases of any one reviewer are blunted by combining them with the whole.

I like Metacritic (at least more than any specific review site), but I still find myself at odds with their ratings from time to time. Obviously some of that is personal preference (my own biases if you will), but other times I think that the concept of Metacritic is hampered by inherent issues with critical review in general. In other words, if one critic is overrating a video game, it seems to be more likely that many others are doing the same. Once a few major sites tout a new game as the "GREATEST THING EVER", the rest are hesitant to give it too low of a score for fear of being too different.

Below I'm going to list the 5 most overrated and 5 most underrated games on Metacritic. These are, obviously, just my opinion. I'm also sticking to games that I've actually played, so likely some hidden gems will be missing from my list.


1. Grand Theft Auto IV
Metacritic score - 98 (these are out of 100)
Sample Review - "It's amazing that a sequel that keeps the core gameplay concepts of its prior incarnations can do so much to change itself into something new. Cabs are awesome, as is the cellphones capabilities. But perhaps the biggest innovation is the notion that you can create a game that's as valid a piece of art as any book or movie. Is this our "Citizen Kane" moment?" (TeamXbox)
My Comments - Let the controversy commence! GTA4 is the #1 overall 360 game on Metacritic, and a pretty beloved title in some circles. The sample review is pretty typical of how this game was received, and beautifully illustrates the failings of the review process. A few major review sites declared that GTA4 was a brilliant work of art, and the rest were terrified to say anything negative about the game for fear that it would seem like they don't "get it". The worst part is that this "Citizen Kane" nonsense (GTA4 has also been compared to The Godfather and various Tarantino works, amongst others) is straight out of the Gamer's Apologetics Handbook. "See, see! Video games can be art! They can be right up there with great works of other media types! VALIDATE MEEEEEEE!"

That's all well and good, but should our efforts to win the "Games as Art" war blind us to GTA4's many failings? I say no. It's a game with an involving story (though one that breaks down in several places) and a highly detailed environment. It's a pretty good game. But the camera and targeting system are both shoddy, and the core gameplay is EXACTLY THE SAME as the last several iterations of GTA. This is the same game that convinced me that Rockstar hates gamers. That's our #1 title? Not a chance...

2. Halo 3
Metacritic score - 94
Sample Review - "Halo 3 may not be as innovative as its predecessors or have the best graphics on the Xbox 360, but it’s an outstanding game and a fitting end to what’s been a fantastic trilogy." (Thunderbolt)
My Comments - More controversy...awesome! Bear in mind that the guy who did the above review still gave Halo 3 a perfect score, despite some decidedly tepid comments. It gives the impression that Halo is getting a lifetime achievement award here rather than being judged on its own merits. In any case, Halo 3 is a lightning rod for both praise and criticism, so I'll simply say that I played this game in online co-op with two friends who practically worshipped the first two games in the series, and they were DISGUSTED with the campaign. Too short, too repetitive, terrible ending...their complaints were legion. I thought it was a polished but uninspired shooter with a famous name. And for all the Halo fanboys who are quick to defend it by saying that only the multiplayer modes are important, save your breath. If the game has a shitty campaign mode, then it isn't worthy of a perfect rating. Is that so hard to understand?

3. Resident Evil 5
Metacritic score - 85
Sample Review - "The gorgeous graphics, the superb sound, the great (if sometimes twitchy) AI of your partner and the jaw-dropping gameplay take everything that was brilliant about Resident Evil 4 and ramp it up to the next level, making for one of the best gaming experiences ever!" (AceGamez)
My Comments - This is just straight up bullshit. RE5 is inferior to RE4 in practically every respect. It has a nonsensical story, an unlikeable protagonist, a broken inventory system, abysmal AI that makes your partner a constant nuisance, and enough quick-time events to make me grind my teeth. Plus the people who made it are either racists or idiots. While a score of 85 might not seem that high, bear in mind that it puts RE5 ahead of games like Borderlands, Viva Pinata, and Civilization Revolution, to name a few.

4. Crackdown
Metacritic score - 83
Sample Review - "Games like Crackdown are the cornerstone the 360's passionate user community is built upon, and why the 360 is developing an increasingly deserved reputation for being the next-gen console of choice." (Worth Playing)
My Comments - I have no idea if the 360 is the next generation console of choice, but they're definitely right that this game has a passionate user base. I've personally never understood the appeal of this game. It's insanely repetitive, and the graphical style could be charitably called mediocre. I know people who were practically frothing at the mouth for the second installment of Crackdown...were they excited or disappointed to discover that it's just more of the same?

5. Eternal Sonata
Metacritic score - 79
Sample Review - "While the balance issues are irritating, to say the least, Eternal Sonata's artistic appeal more than makes up for what the gameplay is lacking. With an excellent story, interesting characters, impressive music, and quite frankly the most beautiful graphics ever produced in a video game, Eternal Sonata is without question the first must-play RPG of the new console generation." (RPGamer)
My comments - This game's rating is skewed by a few people (such as the above reviewer) that heaped ridiculous amounts of praise on it thanks to the (admittedly) impressive graphics. What they don't sufficiently emphasize is that the game is an aggravating chore to play thanks to the repetitive combat system and lengthy, pointless cutscenes. This is the worst RPG I've played to date on the 360, so how it ranks evenly with titles like Tales of Vesperia, Blue Dragon, and Lost Odyssey (a strong candidate for the underrated list) is beyond me.


1. Hitman: Blood Money
Metacritic score - 82
Sample Review - "The gameplay gives you plenty of choices regarding progressing through a stage, and it looks good while you do so. It would've been very easy to churn out another boring murderfest, but instead we get a thinking man's game. Good showing." (Game Over Online)
My Comments - Thinking man's (and woman's) game? There's a fatal flaw if I've ever heard one. Blood Money was a great title, one of the finest stealth games ever made (only the Thief games could compete with it). It married an interesting story with tight, intuitive gameplay and added in some of the most inspired level design I've ever seen. Hitman is almost more of a puzzle game than an action title, as determining how to eliminate your target in the most stealthy manner possible is a fascinating challenge. Unfortunately the game suffered at the hands of critics thanks to the fact that it was ported from the previous generation, and was thus consigned to scores that put it behind the decidedly inferior Splinter Cell games.

2. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Metacritic score - 81
Sample review - "While it is a worthy first survival horror game for the Xbox 360, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once the campaign is over, the player can go back to unlock more extras, but the game is pretty much done, and it has probably gotten repetitive to the average player by then anyway." (GameShark)
My Comments - Sigh. Condemned is one of the scariest, most atmospheric games I've ever played. It ramps up tension like few movies can do, let alone video games. The environments are creepy and unsettling, and the combat is almost disturbingly visceral. This game is not for everyone, but for those who like smart horror films, Condemned is a must-play. As for being a "one-trick pony", what else did you want GameShark? It's not an 80 hour RPG, it's a 10-15 hour horror game with a tight narrative and excellent gameplay. It's certainly true that once you've played it, you've seen the story and some of the scares will be ruined, but so what? It's a different kind of play experience.

3. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
Metacritic score - 79
Sample Review - "It's hard to recommend Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. It's too complicated for kids, and too convoluted for adults, If you're the creative type, you'll enjoy fiddling around with all the parts, but if you're looking for an accessible game that you can play in short bursts and make headway, then steer clear." (GameTrailers)
My Comments - Nuts & Bolts is a brilliant idea for a game. You give the player a bunch of pieces that can be constructed into vehicles (engines, wheels, wings, etc.), give them challenges (carry an acorn from one spot to another, win a race that traverses both land and water, etc.), and then let them design their own custom machines to complete the challenges. It's like Lego/Tinker Toys come to life. It's quirky and different with an endearing sense of humor.

So of course, reviewers mostly disliked it. Oh, there's usually some hand-waving towards the "creative types" (see above), but games like this are generally seen as just time-wasters before getting back to the serious business of blasting space aliens in Halo and its many, many clones. What annoys me about this type of review is that it grossly underestimates children (would someone look at a pile of Lincoln Logs and say "those are too complicated for kids"?) and makes a basic assumption that anything that engages someone's mind is destined for failure. If we expect the worst from people in our society, isn't that what we'll get?

4. Thrillville: Off the Rails
Metacritic score - 73
Sample Review - "It's perfect for children, for whom things don't have to "be integrated" or "logical". A series of semi-amusing, unconnected activities: sounds a lot like a sandbox, which, once you graduate middle school, loses its charm unless you can bring your gat." (Games Radar)
My Comments - In other words, once you turn 14 years of age it's no longer possible to enjoy a sandbox game if it doesn't involve robbing banks and killing prostitutes. You know, integrated logical games like Grand Theft Auto. In Thrillville, you get to design your own theme park, build roller coasters (and ride them!), and try out a variety of well-designed mini-games, all of which are apparently activities that only appeal to elementary school kids. If only you could punish guests who complained about your park by beating them with a baseball bat, maybe Thrillville could aspire to GTA's sense of realism...

5. Sacred 2: Fallen Angel
Metacritic score - 71
Sample Review - "If you can accept it for its dated gameplay, underwhelming visuals, and pervasive bugs, then you may find something of value in this old-school hack-and-slash RPG. All other prospective dungeon crawlers are best advised to take a pass on this fallen flunk." (GameTrailers).
My Comments - I just don't get how this game slipped through the cracks. Dated gameplay? It plays almost exactly the same as World of Warcraft, which has a greater population of players than some developed nations! Pervasive bugs? I've put over 100 hours into the game and found bugs to be both rare and minor. Oblivion (another game I liked) received nothing but critical acclaim, and it was way more buggy than Sacred. Underwhelming visuals? Feh, I guess that depends on what you were expecting. I think the game has very solid graphics, and the variety of enemy models and environments is truly staggering. Compare it to Borderlands (for example), which has a very drab and repetitive art style, and Sacred easily comes out on top in that category.

Again, this is the game on my list that I understand the least. Sacred is like a combination of Diablo and World of Warcraft, which is like mixing chocolate and crack cocaine. Yet reviewers hated it. Why? I'm still not sure, but anyone who likes open-world fantasy RPGs should give this one a try.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

WAA - Viking: Battle for Asgard

I reviewed Viking a while back, but it's time to address the Achievements. Commence WAA!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Thirst For Blood"
You can't help but get this award for killing 50 Legion soldiers, as there are several hundred between you and the end of the game. This will likely be the first award you unlock.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "No Need For Immortality"
I found this one difficult largely because the requirements are unclear. The description states that you need to finish the last area of the game without dying, but it seems like that might only apply to the final boss fight. Either way, you may want to have a memory slot that saves your progress before the last section so you can retry if you fail to get the Achievement.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Skullbagger 2"
There aren't really any awards that require significant grinding in this game. Searching through cities in stealth mode and looking for hidden skulls can be a bit of a pain though.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Thor's Mortal Lightning Rod"
Magic is a bit underutilized in this game, but continue to upgrade your lightning runes and you'll be able to rain some serious electric death down on your enemies...

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Demon Hacker" and several others
The icons are colorful and reasonably detailed, though not terribly imaginative. The real issue, though, is that they repeat quite a bit.

Achievement Set Rating - 6
This rating could have been higher with a little more work on the tiles themselves, but the set is reasonably comprehensive and covers a solid range of difficulty.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 4
It's a fairly average set, with no specifically difficult Achievements. Make sure to play on Hard unless you want to beat the game twice!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Versatile Blogger Award

My far more versatile and infinitely more bloggy better half was recently given a Versatile Blogger Award. It's a way for blog writers to acknowledge their admiration for each other's work (and it functions a bit like a chain letter as well).

Anyway, she passed it on to me, amongst others. The difference between her and I is that she deserves it (seriously, check out her is awesome AND CONSISTENTLY UPDATED) while I am merely a pretender.

The award has three parts:

Thank the person who gave you the award: Thanks Scientist Gone Wordy!

Share 7 things about yourself:
1. I have a PhD, and not in video games.
2. I'm a huge baseball fan...getting my heart broken by the Cubs is a yearly rite of passage for me.
3. I've met President Obama. Nice guy. There were even pictures of us talking together in his campaign literature.
4. Unlike my significant other, I love food (though wouldn't say I'm sufficiently discriminating to be labeled a "foodie"). One of my favorite aspects of travel is trying the cuisine in different areas.
5. Despite loving almost all foods, I HATE watermelon. Everybody I know has these wonderful childhood memories of eating icy cold watermelon on a hot summer day, spitting seeds and making a mess. The very thought of it grosses me out completely.
6. I stayed at a research base in Antarctica (the South Pole) for over two months. Everyone who finds this out asks me if I saw penguins and/or polar bears while I was there, to which I respond (1) yes and (2) there are no bears, polar or otherwise, on the Antarctic continent.
7. I have an obsession with Xbox 360 Achievements that borders on lunacy. This little corner of the blogosphere is like a journal documenting my descent into madness.

Pass the award along to blah, blah, blah:

Yeah, I'm not going to do that. Not because I don't read some great blogs, but because I prefer to be the anonymous guy who observes quietly. However, I implore anyone reading this to check out Scientist Gone Wordy as well as the other blogs she recognizes. They are all excellent and far more worthy of recognition than my insane ramblings!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Last Remnant - Part Three

I've covered the story and characters pretty thoroughly, so now it's time to get to the nitty-gritty and talk about the actual gameplay in Last Remnant. On the surface LR is a turn-based RPG, one of those affairs where the action pauses so each side can determine how they want to proceed. While that's certainly the case, LR eschews standard character-based combat and replaces it with an emphasis on squads. You arrange your various characters into groups (up to 5), which then attack, defend, heal, or whatever as a team. You don't actually get to pick an individual action for each character (a good thing, since you'll eventually be commanding 15 at a time), but rather give each squad a general command (raise your HP, attack with special abilites, etc.) and then they follow as best they can.

It's an interesting system that greatly streamlines command inputs while still allowing for large-scale confrontations with enemy troops. The issue comes, however, with the fact that each squad receives a set of possible commands (mostly at random) from which you can choose, regardless of whether your preferred action is there or not. This comes into play especially when one of your squads has taken a lot of damage - you'll be looking for an option to heal (or at least pull back and regroup), but it's quite possible that the only options available will involve rushing headlong into the fight. It's a system that creates a strong (and largely unwelcome) element of luck. Indeed, I had instances where I got party-wiped in a boss fight because I drew a series of unfortunate command options, then tried again and won easily because I got healing and special attack options when I need them.

The lack of control over your characters aside, I will say that battles are cinematic masterpieces in this game. You really get a sense of ebb and flow as the tide of battle turns over the course of a big showdown (especially with the bosses). In that sense, LR achieved something I hadn't seen before - squad-based RPGs are not common.

Other positives about gameplay:
- No random see enemies on the screen and can avoid them if you don't want to battle. Very handy when backtracking so you don't have to waste time fighting worthless enemies.
- You don't control equipment and ability upgrades for your companions. They ask for equipment that you recover, and you can choose to give it to them or not. It's nice to avoid micromanaging a couple dozen characters, though occasionally you'll end up with a Sword of Awesomeness that's going to waste while your buddies are fighting with sharp sticks.
- There are a lot of side quests, hidden bosses, and special equipment to be found if you're looking. There's plenty of incentive to explore thoroughly, and the rewards are quite worthwhile.

So much to like in LR, and yet there's two MAJOR holes that tarnish the experience.

1. As a piece of software, LR on the Xbox 360 is essentially broken. Stuttering, slow-down, massive frame drops during battle...the developers should be embarrassed that they sent this game out the door. And it's no occasional thing either, something that could have slipped through the cracks in play testing. Every battle is marred by graphical glitches and frame rate issues. They knew this game was not fit to be released, and then they released it anyway. Poor form Square-Enix.

2. LR features the most screwed up leveling system ever devised. That is no's terrible. The way it works is that you army as a whole levels together after a number of battles. However, individual characters gain strength by battling specific (tough) enemies that trigger statistical increases. What's really crazy is that the level of your army is practically inconsequential in determining how battle-ready you are, while statistical increases to individuals is paramount to victory against the tougher bosses in the game.

That may not have made much sense, so let me bottom line what it means to you, the player. The more you fight, the more your army level goes up in relation to your individual characters. Thus, fighting a lot means that you get WEAKER AND WEAKER relative to the tougher enemies. Think about that...the more experience you gain, the WORSE your team fights. The key to raising a strong party? Dashing around the map and avoiding enemies as much as possible until you get to a spot where you can battle the special "character improvement" monsters. Then grind like hell beating them over and over until you're super powerful. If you don't do it that way, you may find at the end of the game that your characters are simply too weak to continue, with little means of improving.

What a backwards, asinine system. It encourages you to skip the actual "game" part of the game as much as possible and PUNISHES you for having the audacity to try improving your roster at the beginning of the game. And don't even get me started about the fact that LR offers you the chance to recruit an enormous number (50+?) of unique generals into your army, but actually using a variety of allies rather than the same ones every time will practically doom you to failure.

The worst part? None of this is explained by the game or in the manual. If you search message board threads about LR, you'll find dozens of people complaining that they got to the end game and were too weak to continue. These people invested dozens of hours into the game playing in a manner that they thought would make their team strong, only to discover that they were RIGHT FUCKED and had to start over. Folks, that is the definition of bad video game design.

So in the end, we have a game with great protagonists and not a single decent villain. A complex political plot that falls apart at the end. A unique and engaging squad-based combat system that's done in by buggy coding. A deep customization system that's complimented by numerous side quests and then SHAT UPON by a bass-ackwards leveling mechanic that potentially ruins the game for many players.

I alternately loved and hated this game, so why do I find myself hoping they'll make another one???

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Last Remnant - Part Two

Last time, I established that Last Remnant desperately lacks a quality villain. But what it does have is a couple of likable protagonists in Rush Sykes and Marquis David (pronounced dah-veed...think French).

Rush starts the game on a quest to find his kidnapped sister. They have absentee parents (scientist/scholars who are too busy in the field to raise their kids), so Rush has understandably developed a "guardian" relationship with his sister. He blames himself for allowing her to be kidnapped (he fights the abductors but is overmatched), so it isn't hard to see why he's so driven. He reminded me of a more good-natured Fox Mulder (shout out to the X-Files fans), in that he wants to help people, but he doesn't want to get too side-tracked from his mission.

As for David, he's a young man (I'd guess late teens, like Rush) trying to fill the shoes of his recently deceased father, the former Marquis of Althum. Apparently dad was a pretty great ruler, much loved by his subjects, and David is struggling to cope with the loss and the weight of following in his footsteps. David is a good person who wants to help those in need, but he has to balance that desire with the needs of his kingdom. All the while, he has to deal with the fact that Althum is pretty low in the pecking order of kingdoms (they aren't even fully independent from another nearby country). It's a precarious position, and not easy to handle for a young prince that took the throne too early and is filled with self-doubt.

Now here's the kicker that makes these two such good characters: Rush and David end up complimenting each other perfectly. Rush is cocksure and confident, but he lacks the resources and political acumen to get his sister back. He'd "rush" headlong into danger without someone like David reigning him back a bit. As for David, he has the will to do the right thing but lacks the confidence. So through their friendship, Rush learns to fight for something greater than himself (the well-being of an entire kingdom) and ultimately recovers his sister, while David gains the confidence to lead Althum in its hour of need, saves the kingdom from a war, and gains its independence.

The best part is that everything I'm describing about their relationship is subtext, rather than explicitly stated. In most games (and movies), the writers worry that the viewer is too stupid to pick up on a subtle undertones, so they spell everything out. In this game, there's no specific scene where Rush and David express the fact that they depend on one another and cover for each other's shortcomings. They interact like normal just get to know them over the course of the game to the point where you can detect these things yourself. Mark me down as a person who prefers the more subtle route in storytelling.


One last bit of "subtext" that I felt was present in Last Remnant - there were more than a few hints that Rush and David had deeper feelings for each other than just friendship. They have a very close relationship, well beyond what even most very good friends would develop. Some of the comments that they exchange have a flirtatious undertone (example: when David requests an item from the party's inventory, Rush responds "Awww...I could never say no to you.") At one point, an openly gay bartender blatantly hits on Rush, so it's not like homosexual themes would come out of nowhere.

Again, this is all subtext. It's certainly never explicitly stated that the two share a deeper relationship. But I think most people who are perceptive when it comes to personal interactions would definitely pick up on at least the possibility. Compared to the atrocious homosexual themes in the equally-atrocious Enchanted Arms (featuring a screeching drama queen stereotype), Rush and David are handled with class and subtlety. Whether I'm right or not, I enjoyed them both as characters.