Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lady Gaga

Just got back from the Lady Gaga show. She is something.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

A simultaneous multiplayer version of Super Mario Bros. is something I'd long dreamed of. Given the very title of the game, it just seemed so obvious, yet Luigi hadn't truly mattered since the original Mario Bros. Alternating multiplayer is no multiplayer at all, and Super was clearly a one-man show, leaving perhaps mechanically inferior games to brave the multiplayer platformer frontier. I think it's accurate to say that my interest in LittleBigPlanet, despite all its other advertised features and innovations, was primarily due to it having support for four simultaneous players. The entire time I was playing it, however, I would be thinking how much better the original Super Mario Bros. felt, and that only made me wish all the more that I could have been playing a four-player Mario game instead. Little did I suspect that the real thing would be coming so soon after. So is New Super Mario Bros. Wii everything I dreamed it would be?

Not quite, but it's still the most fun I've ever had with a Mario game.

Even as a child, I recognized that a cooperative mode would have been difficult to implement on account of the fast pace of the game. It might have been too impractical a challenge to ask two players to keep together on the same screen while making huge running jumps and dealing with enemies that could kill them in one hit. Super Mario Galaxy introduced the inspired option to have a second player take on a subordinate role, providing minor assistance as a detached pointer, and before New Super Mario Bros. Wii was announced, I might have thought that was as much as I could have expected. It looks like Nintendo finally got my letters, however, and NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits this is not. Surprisingly, instead of taking all these years to devise the perfect solution to the potential power struggle scenario, NSMB Wii almost seems to embrace the idea of partners as burdens as a way to encourage coordination in a multiplayer mode that otherwise feels largely tacked-on, even as it was the advertised revolution of this installment.

Reading coverage of the game, it sounded like a lot of previewers got off on deliberately sabotaging their friends in multiplayer, only really attempting to progress through the game in single-player. I don't personally see the fun in that sort of griefing in a non-competitive game (and unlike The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, the story mode here contains no competitive aspects), nor did I have any interest in playing by myself. Playing with my two siblings, we were in it to beat the game, and the "friendly fire" of being able to bump into and jump on top of one another was our most consistent obstacle.

As a player who traditionally likes to proceed at a quick pace, I found it frustrating constantly running into someone's back, or having to slow my own pace to wait for a straggler. Midair collisions also happened frequently due to breakdowns in communication, usually resulting in death for at least one of us. Additionally, with three or more players, whether I'm using a Mario brother or a Toad, there is a high probability that, due to the frenzied pace and regular switching of outfits, I will at some point forget which character I am controlling, and however brief that moment of uncertainty is, it will be enough to result in a needless death.

I had heard some reports that this was an extremely challenging game--maybe even Contra 4 hard. That was surely hyperbole in any case, but I suspect the multiplayer is actually more forgiving than going solo, with the bosses feeling particularly neutered when outnumbered. Yes, despite the more frustrating elements of multiplayer, the chaos of bumping into your buddies is more than balanced out by the extra chances you get by being allowed to respawn on the spot, so long as you do not run out of lives or happen to die at the same time as all your allies. Playing with two players of comparable skill levels, as often as we blamed the partner collision for screwing us, the reality is that we each had our share of deaths that did not involve anyone else. The idea of having to restart from the last checkpoint after each such sudden occasion is almost too horrible to contemplate, even though we've all faced it before. Playing solo, I'm sure I would have lost interest the instant a stage forced me to restart five times. That was exactly when I got bored with and gave up on the original New Super Mario Bros. I suppose that is one of the reasons Miyamoto came up with the "Super Guide" feature, but I haven't experienced it yet for myself (because it isn't available in multiplayer).

Speaking of respawning, the bubble mechanic is, as part of the multiplayer design, one of the most brilliant ideas in the game, although, armchair game designer that I am, I feel it could have been handled better.

Not only do you arrive powerless within a drifting bubble upon respawn, but you can also enter the bubble at will at any time, thereby rendering yourself invincible. For advanced players, this introduces entirely new tactics--you can jump to reach a coin suspended above the abyss, then bubble up just before you fall to your doom--and it also becomes addictive as a way to save yourself after careless missteps (which will likely become more frequent as a consequence).

More significantly, in my opinion, the bubble presents a way for younger or less skilled players to enjoy a game that might otherwise be too challenging for them. Playing alongside more veteran players, they could simply enter the bubble during difficult sections and allow their partners to carry the team through. At least, that's the promise I see. The problem is that, while you can enter the bubble on your own, to a large extent you cannot choose when or where you pop out of it. You cannot control where you drift, except by shaking the remote to move closer to a live player, so that they can break you out on contact. But in precisely the delicate situations where the bubble would be fine refuge, it becomes just another hazard. I know there were moments when I died because a bubble flew unexpectedly into my jump arc and dumped another player on me. Personally, I don't see why they couldn't have let you control where the bubble moved. So long as you were still dependent on your friends to burst you out, it's not like there would have been any way to cheat.

Given all the promotional focus on the four-player aspect, and with casual being the key demographic for the Wii, I expected a more lightweight Mario game that, like Four Swords Adventure, might have felt compromised when played alone. To my surprise, it actually feels very much like a traditional single-player installment that then had the multiplayer thrown in later. Not only is the game as fast-paced as ever, but many of the timing-specific sprints or jumps clearly only accommodate, at most, two single-file acrobats proceeding with a never-look-back mentality, before a ledge recedes or a gap closes on the third. When presented with an unbroken series of such obstacles, I don't see how more than two players can possibly be expected to all survive. And aside from the bubble mechanic, the only other technical advantage that having multiple players adds is the ability to perform the combined ground pound, which is powerful but difficult to pull off under pressure. At least the game probably changes drastically with each added player, so one could potentially get four different experiences out of it, albeit some would be considerably more broken than others.

The game is visually underwhelming and looks virtually identical to the DS New Super Mario Bros. I speak not only of the technology but also the concepts. It's all very functional and not ugly, but it's sad to see that, in what has been positioned as Nintendo's prestige title of the year, there is nothing even so impressive as the Mode 7 effects from Super Mario World, nor as original as Giant Land from Super Mario Bros. 3. Truly, the most disappointing thing about NSMB Wii is the sense that Nintendo just doesn't try as hard as it used to. The adventure takes players through a series of overly familiar locales, including a desert world, an ice world, an aquatic world, and a fire world. Yoshi appears rarely and with no fanfare, perhaps because he is completely extraneous to the experience. The new penguin suit, while cool, is sadly underutilized, and the mini mushroom is largely useless. The most offensively stupid thing about the game is its omission of the princess as a playable character, instead offering two playable Toad characters that are distinguished only by their colors. Miyamoto has offered a few different explanations for this, none of which are valid, in my opinion, nor as funny as he seems to think.

That about covers my complaints with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The game still excels other 2-D platformers in the ways that Super Mario Bros. always has. The physics and level design are, of course, perfect, and even the motion controls work quite well. That's all the good stuff that should be expected of the series. Yet as I grew older, none of that was enough to keep me engaged. Playing New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, I became quickly bored without any meaningful context or sense of purpose to motivate me. But those are non-issues when you have other people to play with, which is why, for all its frustrations, I do feel that the multiplayer is a transformative addition to the series. Thus is NSMB Wii only the second Super Mario Bros. game that I've played all the way through (and considering that Super Mario Land was, in its entirety, only about as long as maybe two of NSMB Wii's eight worlds, it barely counts).

It is, at the very least, the best E-rated game of the year and probably the best co-op experience of the year. Now let's have a four-player sequel to Super Mario Bros. 2!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Heaven or Hell

With console shooters really having come into their own this generation, more traditional third-person action games have seemingly become a little less relevant. 2008 gave us Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden II, but reception for those entries was less warm than for their immediate predecessors, and the general opinion seemed to be that the hardcore combat action genre had grown stagnant. This year's best combat action game was Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2--really a rather sad comment on the state of the genre. Next year, however, we will be getting three major new releases by the end of March. I tried out the demos for all three recently. Here are my impressions:


Based on the gameplay footage I had seen previously, I was expecting just a faster version of Devil May Cry, and that is essentially what the demo feels like, though I wasn't quite prepared for just how fast the game really is. That blistering speed, combined with some crazily over-the-top effects, makes the action pretty hard to follow, but I suppose it will just take some adjusting to.

Like Dante, Bayonetta fights with a combination of melee attacks and guns. She is able to switch weapons in real time, and with the added ability to pick up enemy weapons, the impressive branching combo system eclipses even Capcom's recent entries in approaching the depth of a fighting game. Some vaguely God of War-esque prompts for execution sequences adds some cinematic flair.

Right now, I just have two major concerns.

First is the art. Bayonetta herself is certainly one of the more original designs in a long while, but I can't say I'm particularly a fan. She's not cool like Dante, and her looks and speech are too overtly freaky to be attractive. Enemies and locations, meanwhile, seem much more generic in that Japanese CG way, and the angelic motif seems a little too close to Devil May Cry 4, which is comparatively more elegant. Looking at DMC4, Ninja Gaiden II, and now Bayonetta, I'm beginning to think, more than anything else, it's really the stylized art that is growing stale in this HD generation where more realistic aesthetics are in vogue.

I'm more anxious about the camera, though it may well prove to be the most evolutionary aspect of Bayonetta. Unlike Devil May Cry and every other top tier entry in this genre, Bayonetta utilizes a user-controlled camera. With the action being so intense in these games, I think most developers have concluded that it's asking a bit much to have the player operate the camera in addition to their character.

I'm not sure Bayonetta offers any new solution, but the more dynamic camera seems justified once into the final stage of the PS3 demo, which introduces the "Witch Walk" mechanic. As characters walk on walls, it is the entire room that seems to rotate. Transitioning from floor to wall feels surprisingly natural, yet the visual effect, highly evocative of a stage from The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for SNES, keeps the concept as exciting as it should be.

God of War III

My only previous experience with the God of War series was my having played the demo for the first game. My impression of it was that it was a more mainstream version of Devil May Cry, and that more or less describes the God of War III demo as well.

It's fun, but the combat does feel much simpler compared to Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. It trades the deeper combo systems of those games for the variety of more immediately gratifying gimmicks like being able to ride and command a giant. Both of the melee weapons in the demo seem designed for flailing around in all directions, and I don't think there is even a way to target a specific enemy, but most of them arrive and die as packs anyway. It almost feels more like Dynasty Warriors than Devil May Cry, but it avoids feeling repetitive by mixing in some non-combat gameplay moments.

The demo ends with a flying sequence that plays out very much like the Death Star trench run from Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, where you just constantly progress forward at high speed while steering clear of oncoming obstructions. That was a technically problematic sequence back on the GameCube, and the more powerful PS3 hardware can't really fix the inherent difficulty with that design. Kratos at least doesn't explode immediately on impact, but the close, behind-the-back angle presents serious depth perception issues--it's very difficult to gauge the distance to the nearest oncoming object, as well as the distance between that and the next closest object. This is one mechanic that I think could work beautifully, however, with that future 3-D (I mean the glasses, not polygons).

Dante's Inferno

EA's series of questionable marketing stunts has barely kept on the radar what has otherwise largely been dismissed as a shameless God of War ripoff.

Dante's Inferno wears its inspiration on its sleeve, sporting familiar combat and enemies, a similar grab maneuver, dodging with the right analog stick, the same style of cinematic QTE executions, and even a sequence in the demo that has you riding a giant enemy. I also find it hard to believe that, when this game was pitched, nobody stopped to point out that there was another well-known, mechanically similar title starring a popular character by the name of Dante.

So Dante's Inferno offers nothing new or better, and its hero may not be winning any "best new character" awards, but, based on the demos, I would not exactly consider Bayonetta or God of War III revolutionary either. Clone though it may be, EA's game is at least well-produced and very convincing in its exhibited understanding of the formula. As one more title to occupy the most ravenous of action fans, it won't have much of a lead against God of War III next year, but it will have a huge advantage in being a multiplatform title.

My concern is that it may be just another Rygar: The Legendary Adventure.

The first really accomplished Devil May Cry clone, Rygar had high production values, rock-solid frame rate, and the same perfectly responsive controls as its obvious inspiration. It was a very fine game, but I bet it made for a great demo. At first glance, Tecmo had almost flawlessly replicated the basic mechanics of Capcom's seminal hit, but the difference between an original and a knockoff became apparent as you got further into the game. As you whaled on the same caterpillar enemy over and over again for the adventure's meager five-hour duration, it was clear that the developers, driven by the motivation just to ape an existing title, had gotten only the skeleton but lacked the vision to layer on meaty substance. Hopefully the Dante's Inferno team can do better.

No, not one of these games actually seems any better than Devil May Cry 4, which wasn't much different from Devil May Cry 3. I'm still waiting for one of these games to include a full-on co-op mode, which would constitute real progress in my opinion. I mean, in the 2-D era, a one-man beat 'em up would have been considered worthless.

Nevertheless, playing these demos reminded me how much I personally still enjoy this formula. I came away feeling very good about all three games, and it's just a shame that they are all being released in such close proximity to one another. I don't know that even my interest will last through all three of them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The long-awaited return of . . . Spec Ops?!

I can't believe I'm saying this now, but I think the new Spec Ops may be the game that I've been waiting for.

Unveiled during the Spike Video Game Awards, the debut trailer for Spec Ops: The Line is astonishingly awesome. The gameplay footage is nothing too mind-blowing--it's just another Kill Switch derivative--but some stunningly brutal images (more in a second trailer) and chilling mad snippets of dialogue gripped me right off as few triple-A video game trailers ever have. Indeed, it was the only exciting thing to come out of the VGAs. Whereas EA has answered the call by rather shamelessly ripping off the rival franchise that its own Medal of Honor effectively begot and then was rendered obsolete by, 2K Games seems determined to entirely reshape Spec Ops into something newly respectable.

It begs the question, though, why is this a Spec Ops title at all? Really, is there some cachet to the Spec Ops brand that I'm unaware of? I admit I've never played a Spec Ops game, but that was because they were, by all accounts, terrible pieces of junk.

I guess the series started out on PCs, where the original developer maybe still had a bit of ambition and self-respect, but it was last seen in action as an unashamedly low-budget shooter released during that desolate transition period--after real developers had abandoned the PS1, but still before the PS2 was deserving of the average consumer's money. For that short, dark period in gaming history, the Spec Ops series of budget-priced PS1 titles tore up the sales charts simply by being cheap games for a cheap platform. Then Grand Theft Auto III truly ushered in the next generation, and mercifully the Spec Ops brand seemed to die away.

Now, two generations later, 2K Games has decided to dig up the Spec Ops name for reasons I cannot fathom. Successful though they may have been for what they were, I find it hard to believe that even the people who somehow ended up with copies of those PS1 Spec Ops games have retained much reverence for the franchise after all these years. For the rest of us, it was never anything but a joke, and that too is scarcely remembered now. Still, I would think that any association with the name would be more a drag than a boost for a future release such as The Line.

Then again, what can we really tell from such an early trailer? Spec Ops: The Line may yet prove to be a work worthy of the name.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I had a dream that I was at the theater watching a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

"I'm so glad they got Johnny Depp back as Jack Sparrow," said the guy next to me.

"That's Orlando Bloom," I corrected him.

Not only was this guy unable to tell the difference between Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, but he had somehow missed the biggest news of the decade--after Depp had, for whatever reason, walked out on the series, leading to the most drawn-out and heavily scrutinized recasting call of all time, the studio had ultimately determined that the best actor for the part was none other than Orlando Bloom.

Despite some early naysayers, as it turned out, Depp's Oscar-nominated performance was all in the makeup all along (although, in my dream, Bloom looked and acted more like Zorro than Jack Sparrow).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Steven Seagal: Lawman

"For twenty years, Steven Seagal has been a deputy in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, a job he's kept out of the limelight... until now."

Nothing much for me to add, except to say that this is pretty freaking amazing. Much better than Shaq Vs.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Army of Two

Somalia. 1993. What the hell were we doing there?

Oh, right--our government had hired Philip Clyde, top contractor with the SSC private military company, to "take down" a local warlord. I, Tyson Rios, and my fellow US Army Ranger, Elliot Salem, were there to make sure Clyde fulfilled his contract. Things got complicated, as they usually do in Somalia.

Seriously, what the hell were we doing there?

Clyde turned out to be nothing more than a well-trained, well-paid thug. As we walked right into the warlord's trap, this "best of the best" mercenary just parkoured away across rooftops, leaving Salem and I to carry out the assassination ourselves. Only the dreaded back-to-back formation that had earned us our reputation as a "two-man army" kept us alive as the enemy surrounded us from all sides. But this mission was a tall order even for us. We were still only two, and this was Somalia. The hostile locals made up in numbers and suicidal fearlessness for any deficiencies of training or equipment.

Following another hectic gunfight, I found myself pinned between a wrecked car and a stone wall. After interminable minutes of my partner and I struggling in vain to get me loose, we both knew what had to be done.

"Finish the mission," I told him. "Just don't leave me for these animals."

He was not going to be able to free me. I could not self-terminate. Delaying the grim inevitable would only increase the likelihood of us both getting killed there.

As my partner gripped his gun, his finger hovering intensely over the trigger for what felt like forever, I don't know whose agony was worse.

It might have been the gutsiest, most brutal co-op gaming moment since the ending to the original arcade Double Dragon.

Too bad it was actually the product of a heinous bug, rather than any design of the developer.

What had actually happened was that my character had become hopelessly snagged on or in a tile of wonky collision. The area was clear, and I was merely searching for ammo. I had slipped into a narrow space between a car and a wall, and when I tried to turn back after finding nothing, I found that my character was stuck and would only move in place, even as my partner ran back and forth across the same strip of map several times without difficulty. After I gave him a turn at my controller to prove that I really was caught, we concluded that there was absolutely no prying me loose. The game would not allow my partner to progress to the next area without me, however, so it looked like we were screwed. It was then that I had an idea.

I suggested that my partner shoot my character. Although I could not be moved while standing, perhaps once I ran out of health and collapsed to a downed state, my partner would be able to drag me out and then revive me. It was perverse, but it was our only option.

For the live human player controlling my partner, there was no pained hesitation. Rather, it was too good an opportunity for him to act like a jerk and know that the other guy had literally asked for it. After wasting several rounds on my crotch instead of simply aiming for my head, there was actual fear on my part that he would run out of ammo before I died, thereby really locking us in that awful situation. Fortunately he had barely enough, and from there my plan worked just as I had hoped.

Despite that outrageous bug experienced during the Xbox 360 demo for EA's Army of Two (which would not be the last time the game broke itself with a progression-halting glitch), the game still showed promise, and I was looking for another good co-op campaign after having completed both Gears of War titles.

The full game did not turn out to be the great Gears of War clone that I might originally have hoped for, but it is a surprisingly decent title that actually distinguishes itself quite admirably from the other cover-based shooters on the market. Simply put, Army of Two is the most co-op game I have ever played.

Contrary to my fictionalized account, the real Army of Two is insistent that under no circumstances do you ever leave a man behind, because if you can't make it through together, then you won't make it through at all. From Contra to Gears of War, most co-op modes merely double the destruction by adding a second gun to a game that could be played and beaten with just one. Some games may include short sections where two players must split up, or where both must activate buttons simultaneously, but for the most part, there is little actual teamwork required, and even in co-op there is often the sense that a single player could do it on their own. In contrast, I don't think there is a single battle in Army of Two that can be won without both characters working together.

The basic shooting and cover mechanics are merely passable, but the core of the game is the "Aggro" system. An "Aggrometer" measures the player characters' aggressiveness, swinging back and forth between the two according to who is dealing more damage or carrying the flashier weapon. When the Aggrometer is solidly on one character's side, he will turn red and attract most of the enemy's attention, allowing the other player enough breathing room to line up clean shots or get into flanking position. Aggro is much more than a gimmick; nearly every battle in the game takes place in a wide-open space where eagle-eyed foes can approach and fire from all sides, so the only way for one character to get anywhere is for the other to momentarily draw the enemy's focus by going Aggro. The game's easiest difficulty level allows a bit more leeway in strategy, but there is still a great deal of tactical interdependency to the ebb and flow of the Aggro, with both players constantly alternating roles to systematically dismantle enemy formations. You can even feign death when low on health, at which point all the Aggro will transfer to the other player, leaving them to survive on their own for as long as possible while you slowly recover your health on the ground.

Army of Two is serious about providing a two-man experience, and it includes several other novel co-op mechanics, although most are not ultimately very successful.

In Gears of War, when a character runs out of health, he becomes just a helpless lump, which an ally can then revive with a simple tap on the shoulder. Army of Two favors a far more visceral system, leaving a wounded character unable to move but still able to shoot. Meanwhile it is up to their partner to dash into the fray and drag them to relative safety before administering first aid. It should have been the most thrilling mechanic of the game, but it's totally busted in practice. For the downed player, the very partner that you need to cover as he drags or heals you usually ends up completely obscuring your camera view, leaving you more likely to shoot him than any enemy gunmen. The back-to-back sequences are similarly flawed, as your screen is regularly obstructed by the massive sparks emitting from your partner's gun barrel.

Co-op snipe is a nifty idea in theory, but as its own dedicated mechanic it is kind of pointless. Activating it switches both players to scope view and starts a countdown, allowing you to snipe two targets at the same time. For example, you might need to stealthily take out two guards in unison, so that neither's death alerts the other. I suspect that it exists only to allow you to coordinate with the AI partner in single-player. In two-player, there's no reason, aside from the dearth of sniper rounds, that you couldn't both manually equip your sniper rifles and count it down out loud.

The less said about the back-to-front tandem parachute sequences, the better.

Honestly, the most successful co-op maneuver is actually giving kudos. When standing next to your partner, you can press a button to gimme five or duo air guitar. This is accompanied always by a funny audio clip. It may not have a lot of practical purpose, but at least it does what it's supposed to by easing the tension. The best part is that you can continue to do it even while characters are receiving orders or having grim scripted conversations.

The campaign's six missions are loosely tied together with some vague conspiracy plot. Far from playing out like an episode of 24, however, the game spans years. Following the first Somalia mission, Salem and Rios follow their CO in becoming contractors with SSC. The next mission takes place eight years later in Afghanistan, mere hours after the attacks on 9/11. Then, from when Rios first voices his suspicions about his PMC higher-ups, it takes another eight years before he and Salem actually get around to doing anything about it, with the game concluding in the then future of 2009.

As it skips years at a time, what little story there is is hard to follow, and I repeatedly found myself wondering what we were even fighting for. Then a pop-up upon reaching a checkpoint would display the funds in my virtual bank account, and I would realize that perhaps that was the point, because Salem and Rios are, after all, soldiers of fortune. Rios at least occasionally shares the player's ethical concerns, but when you stop and pay attention to his partner's whining about credit card debt, you realize that there is virtually nothing separating the materialistic Salem from the completely amoral villains of the piece. Salem and Rios aren't heroes, and it is only our predisposition to identify ourselves as the good guys in these games that might blind us to this reality. Perhaps Big Boss had some things to say about mercenaries, but I think Army of Two gets closer to the truth of it. Neither romanticizing nor entirely condemning PMCs, the game rather soberly captures that, for these contractors, war is just a job, and that's what's scary. Ultimately the game finishes with mercs engaging mercs in true warfare sans ideology.

Weaving its story across historic events, the campaign, not only includes stages set in Somalia and Afghanistan, but also sends Salem and Rios to Iraq and even references Hurricane Katrina. It doesn't dwell in polemics at the expense of playability, but it is at least a little more relevant than the sci-fi of Gears of War. As much as those may have been superior games that I greatly enjoyed, it was refreshing to find an experience that more closely resembled the real world.

On the other hand, while the campaign features some of the hairiest scenarios in any shooter I've played, there are no epic boss fights and few spectacles to be had, and that overall lack of variety is really what hurts the game most. Unless you count the occasional suicide bomber or rocket launcher guy, the only non-standard enemy type is the heavily armored soldier. Completely invincible from the front, and with enough awareness and artillery to stop dead any direct approach, these mini-bosses are ostensibly the ultimate test of your mastery of the co-op gameplay, as they can only be felled by somehow slipping behind them to deliver a kill shot to the back. Later on, we learned that a big enough gun could knock them to the ground, after which one player could simply run behind them and shoot them in the back as they got up. In fact, that was how the game ended, as the final battle is nothing more than a series of three of these nameless, faceless, identical-looking heavy armor dudes. Meanwhile the story's two name antagonists are both taken out in consecutive non-interactive cut scenes that last about two minutes total.

I suspect that EA received quite a bit of warranted negative feedback about that ending, because a free, post-release DLC pack included an alternate ending that, sure enough, allowed players to have that showdown with the main villain. Of course, his appearance--the entire scenario, in fact--is so aggressively clownish that, as you play, you can almost hear the developer saying, "Here's your damn boss fight, since nobody got what we were going for in the original ending!"

The horrible ending, mediocre gunplay, and poorly balanced and repetitive levels keep Army of Two from being a great game, but its unique mechanics make it still one of the better co-op shooters out there, especially if you have a PS3 instead of a 360. I am happy to see it getting a sequel, which will hopefully refine some of those ideas into a more functional and well-rounded experience.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Henry in Real Time

Woman A: Okay, so you're an Aquarius? And what's your boyfriend's sign?

Woman B: Virgo.

Woman A: Ooh, that's trouble! Is he a real homebody?

Woman B: Actually, yeah, he is. So that guide is pretty right-on, huh?

Astrology. Utter trash. It is nothing more than the power of suggestion. Woman A's magazine tells her that Virgos are homebodies, and then she goes looking for examples among the Virgos she knows. The problem is that, while she may think she's testing the theory, in pursuing the possibility of any connection between an individual and one specific zodiacal symbol, she has actually already fallen into the trap. Because when you're determined to spot patterns, you're liable to interpret them even where none exist.

While real people tend to be complexes of many and sometimes contradictory aspects, most astrological profiles are brief and one-dimensional yet also deceptively generic. A normal person is most likely a combination of the collective traits describing all the signs. So, really, most individuals could probably be described by any of the sign profiles. After all, they're more like moods that we all go through than fully fleshed-out personality types.

Woman A: Yeah, I've dated a lot of Virgos before. They never like to go out or do anything. I'm a Leo, so I'm really active, and I need a guy who can keep up.

Maybe her Virgo ex-boyfriend was too tired to go out on one occasion, but because that example is all she'll be looking for, that's all she'll see. If I were to shuffle all the profiles around without her knowing it, Woman A would probably still manage to find evidence supporting those manufactured connections.

Woman B: Ha, I think you're right. My sister's a Leo and she's the same way.

Woman A: Yeah, Leos and Virgos just don't work. Virgos are real homebodies. They never go anywhere with you.

Okay, this is getting downright offensive. Time to set the record straight.

Me: I don't think that's true.

Woman A: Oh? You don't believe in astrology?

Me: No, I think it's just the power of suggestion.

Woman A: What does that mean?

Here we go . . .

Me: The problem is that those descriptions don't really say anything. People are too complex to be summarized like that. I mean, those are more like moods than personalities. Probably, you could find an example in anybody's life to support a profile of them as a homebody. The whole trick is that any of the profiles can match any of us. If I switched them all around without telling you, you would probably still think they made sense.

Woman B: Yeah, I see what you mean.

I rest my case. Right?

Woman A: So what's your sign, Henry?

Hmm, this could be a good chance to shatter her preconceptions about Leos and Virgos, while also proving my point about the power of suggestion.

Me: I'm a Leo.

Ha! She'd be the first to insist that we two Leos are nothing alike. So what does she have to say about this?

Woman A: Really? Me too! When's your birthday?

Crap! I'm actually a Virgo. And maybe a bit of a homebody.

Me: I don't know.

Woman A: You don't know your own--

Me: I was adopted.

Argh! This is not going the way I planned. Now my thoughts are lagging behind my rapidly deteriorating speech. Dare I continue down this course and attempt to keep up with my own lies? This cannot possibly end well.

Woman A: So, wait, you don't have a birthday?

Me: No, that's a lie. I'm actually a Virgo.

Damn it all! I should have made her use her stupid guide to guess my sign!

Woman A: Aha! I thought so. Yep, you are definitely the Virgo type.

That's what you think! But what if I just change my sign again with another lie? So much for my being a "Virgo type" then.

Me: Maybe.

Alas. You win this round, pseudoscience.

Woman B: Haha, that was funny.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Avoiding the Issue

I generally don't like to complain about my job, for although it may not be the most fulfilling, I can think of plenty worse, as well as plenty that may be better but also far more demanding. Really, the only thing my work requires is a high tolerance for tedium--I basically repeat the same five-minute process for eight hours per day, day after day. So maybe I could do with a little more excitement in my life. Unfortunately, recent "developments" at the office have introduced entirely the wrong kind of excitement, bordering more on terror.

For over a month now, contractors have been working to renovate the roof. Management warned us that we might have to bear with some loud banging and perhaps the smell of chemicals throughout the duration of this process. They did not mention anything about the peculiar leaks from holes in the ceiling all along the outside perimeter of the building.

These holes are not cracks or any other kind of damage; they look like open pipes, and they have always been there, though I never really noticed them until they started leaking. I don't know whence they originate, nor am I adequately educated in plumbing as to guess the reason for them to be protruding out of the ceiling and facing down where people would be walking, but most of them are easy to steer clear of and therefore harmless enough. The one dastardly exception happens to be positioned right above the entrance to the building.

Dripping directly in my path, there is only a very narrow gap around the leak itself, while the puddle below extends across the length of the doorway and must practically be hopped over. That's disturbing enough, but after it had been brewing for two days, by the third I could not help but notice the foul yet familiar stench that had developed around the area. I really didn't want to believe the worst, especially as I still didn't understand why these pipes were in the ceiling instead of harmlessly underground. After about the first week, however, someone set down a bucket to catch that liquid, and sure enough, it's a sickening brown-yellow color.

Yes, for over a month now, every day as I arrive at work, I have had to dodge urine dripping from the ceiling. Leaning as far as I can toward the wall, even while pushing the heavy door open, I then have to make a big sideways step over the overflowing bucket and across the puddle of urine below.

I suppose I must look like a fool to anyone watching, but these are the desperate measures the situation has driven me to. I cringe when occasionally I see co-workers indifferently stepping into the puddle, or even allowing a drop to splash upon a shoulder. Do these people not have noses and/or eyes?! Can they not tell that it is pee?! Just as management has failed to address it at all beyond laying down that insufficient bucket, I suppose these civilians would rather not face reality. But in that case, tell me, which of us is truly the fool?

It's all just too much. I need a vacation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bloodline Rebellion

Speaking of Tekken and Wikipedia, the Tekken story makes for some surprisingly awesome Wikipedia reading. It's just a shame that, from my experience, even playing the games doesn't reveal much about the story. Tekken 6's story mode includes stylized summaries of the first five titles, but although it is pretty slick, it's basically incomprehensible to anyone who isn't already intimately familiar with the characters. No, I didn't get it until I started researching that Leo gender nonsense. I don't know that any of my readers actually care about Tekken, but I feel like people should know this stuff, because it really is quite amazing. For that reason, I'm going to try to summarize it here as best as I can.


In the prologue to the first chapter of the Tekken saga, Heihachi Mishima, head of the Mishima Zaibatsu multi-national corporation, tosses his five-year-old son, Kazuya, off a cliff, because Heihachi could never acknowledge a son too weak to survive and make the climb back up. Kazuya barely survives, but, his body broken, he is met by "Devil," who offers him the power to avenge himself against Heihachi. The five-year-old Kazuya accepts, at the cost of his soul.

Twenty-one years later, Heihachi decides to host the first "King of the Iron Fist Tournament" to attract the world's greatest martial artists, his grown-up son among them. Entering the tournament, Kazuya fights his way through to earn a final round match against Heihachi himself.

Father and son battle for hours atop the very cliff from which Heihachi once hurled Kazuya. Finally, Kazuya, juiced with the Devil power, emerges victorious, whereupon he evens the score by flinging Heihachi off the cliff.

So things are pretty simple so far. All this tossing of live bodies off cliffs is a bit extreme, but this is not too different from, say, the story of Fatal Fury, which ended with Terry Bogard jump-kicking his father's killer, crime boss Geese Howard, through the window of the top floor of the Geese Tower high-rise. It may even be considered comparable to Chun-Li and Guile's stories in Street Fighter II, albeit those ended in slightly less dramatic fashion.

Tekken 2

Here's where things get interesting.

In a stunning twist, Kazuya Mishima, formerly the P1 default character and story protagonist, becomes the villain of the sequel!

Two years after Kazuya took control of the Mishima Zaibatsu by defeating his father at the King of the Iron Fist Tournament, the corporation has actually grown more corrupt than it ever had been under Heihachi.

Upon learning that Heihachi is still alive and seeking revenge, Kazuya, in order to lure out his father, announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2, with a cash prize of a trillion dollars.

At some point during the tournament, Kazuya manages to impregnate Jun Kazama--an important development for later on.

As far as the tournament itself, it is this time Heihachi the challenger who confronts Kazuya in the final match. In the rematch, Heihachi proves the stronger Mishima, prompting Devil to take control of Kazuya's body. But even the full power of Devil's true form is no match for Heihachi. Devil flees Kazuya's unconscious body, which the triumphant Heihachi then dumps into an erupting volcano.

Seriously, does it get any more freaking hardcore than that? By the end of the first game, each Mishima had already tossed the other off a cliff once, so I guess Heihachi needed a volcano to top that. Also, considering that Heihachi originally threw his son off a cliff supposedly as a test, how many times is Kazuya supposed to survive the impossible before his father can just be proud of him?

And in the coolest part of the Tekken 6 prologue, the Tekken 2 overview is nearly identical to the first segment, only with the roles reversed.

Tekken 3

Fifteen years since the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2, the Mishima Zaibatsu, with Heihachi Mishima back in control, has ushered in a new era of world peace.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Mexico emerges a supernatural "fighting god" entity dubbed "Ogre," which begins targeting the world's top fighters. Among them is Jun Kazama, who, before falling to Ogre, instructs her fifteen-year-old son, Jin, to seek refuge from his grandfather Heihachi.

Heihachi takes in his grandson, training him in Mishima Style Karate over the course of four years, at the end of which Heihachi announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 3 as the venue for Jin Kazama to avenge his mother against Ogre. Unbeknownst to Jin and the other competitors, Heihachi actually wants to capture Ogre's power for himself.

At the end of the tournament, Jin faces and defeats Ogre but is immediately betrayed by Heihachi, who shoots his grandson in the head. Jin survives, however, thanks to the suddenly awakening "Devil Gene" inherited from Kazuya. Jin sprouts wings, becoming "Devil Jin," and defeats Heihachi before flying off.

So now this generational storyline has granted us a third Mishima, when already two seemed like too many. It will certainly not be long before there is enough fictional history involved in this series to rival all the Metal Gears and Resident Evils of the world.

Tekken 4

Two years later, Heihachi, seeking to harness the Devil power exhibited by Jin, learns that Kazuya, who also possessed the Devil Gene, has been revived by the Mishima Zaibatsu's chief rival, G Corporation.

Planning to lure out and capture both Jin and Kazuya, Heihachi announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 4. (Sheesh, is this the only reason ever for holding the King of the Iron Fist Tournament? What happened to the days when the fight was everything? And is there really no better way to capture these Mishimas than by beating them down in single combat in a tournament?)

As Jin prepares to face Kazuya for a place in the final match against Heihachi, the Mishima Zaibatsu's "Tekken Force" soldiers ambush and incapacitate Jin. Heihachi, apparently still quite vital more than two decades since the first game, then defeats Kazuya and takes both him and the unconscious Jin to the Hon-Maru dojo in the woods.

At this point, the Devil power emerges in Kazuya once again and he defeats Heihachi. Kazuya then intends to take Jin's Devil power for himself, but Jin awakens and manages to defeat Kazuya. Before flying off again, Jin also gives Heihachi another ass-kicking for good measure, but, in order not to shame the memory of the pure-hearted Jun, he fights back the Devil Gene's urge to kill the old man.

Tekken 5

In the immediate aftermath of Devil Jin's last rampage, the defeated Kazuya and Heihachi are ambushed by robots sent by G Corporation. Kazuya escapes, but the robots blow up Hon-Maru with Heihachi still in it.

The world believing Heihachi dead, the Mishima Zaibatsu nevertheless carries on with an unknown figure at the helm. The King of the Iron Fist Tournament 5 is announced, again attracting Kazuya and Jin, to no one's surprise.

Ultimately, Jin makes it to the final against the secret new head of the Mishima Zaibatsu, who turns out to be none other than Jinpachi Mishima, Heihachi's father. The founder of the Mishima Zaibatsu, Jinpachi had been imprisoned under Hon-Maru by his son, who stole the company from him. (Perhaps fear of the same fate is the real reason Heihachi threw Kazuya off that cliff. Makes me wonder, though, why these guys even keep extending the line, as it seems quite antithetical to the Highlander-esque game that drives these Mishimas.) As Jinpachi starved to death, Devil came to him, granting him the Devil Gene and keeping him alive (but driving him crazy) until the destruction of Hon-Maru freed him.

Tekken 5 was the one Tekken that I kind of played, but, although there were actually some dense character backstories narrated by Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the endings seemed mostly gag-oriented in nature.

Tekken 6

Fast-forward to the present, and we now know that Jin defeated Jinpachi Mishima to close the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 5. In the most shocking, almost Whedon-esque twist, however, Jin Kazama, the one remaining "hero" character, who never craved power as his father and grandfather had, has assumed control of the Mishima Zaibatsu. And he's the worst one yet!

Raising the stakes higher than ever, Jin openly declares war against all nations while firmly establishing the Mishima Zaibatsu as the dominant superpower. Mind you, this is not even Devil Jin, which historically has only emerged against Jin's will in desperate situations and these days exists in the games more as a dream character a la Evil Ryu. No, this is the real Jin, and that's a hell of a lot scarier than Devil Jin ever was.

With the entire world engulfed in war, only G Corporation, now led by Kazuya, can oppose Jin. Kazuya places a bounty on his son's head, to which Jin responds predictably by announcing the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 6.

With Heihachi, Kazuya, and now even Jin turning heel, it falls to another new Mishima to perhaps play the good guy. This time it is one Lars Alexandersson, an illegitimate son of Heihachi. Added as part of the Bloodline Rebellion upgrade of Tekken 6, he is the protagonist of the home version's story mode, which this time seems pretty dense. These modes have a lousy track record in Tekken--nay, in fighting games as a whole--but right now I'm genuinely interested to see if Namco has finally pulled it off (and if Lars can possibly break the curse of the Mishima bloodline).

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's a trap! Or is it . . . IS IT?!

So I was flipping through the Tekken 6 art book when I came upon this chap by the name of Leo. Although I dabbled in Tekken 5, I don't actively follow the series, so I was not previously aware of this new character.

Seeing his design for the first time, I could only roll my eyes at Namco. While some have joked that, between Tekken 6's Bob and Street Fighter IV's Rufus, grotesquely obese Americans must be the new fashion in fighting games, it looked to me like Namco and Capcom had both also gone about refreshing their rosters by ripping off old designs from their perennially less prosperous arcade neighbor, SNK. But this was a considerably more blatant and direct theft, whereas Capcom had more just vaguely mimicked the King of Fighters aesthetic in cobbling together C. Viper.

Why, this Leo dude is just an even more effeminate version of Rock Howard! Could Namco be any more shameless?

Yet I found myself inexplicably and uncontrollably drawn to linger toward a closer examination.

And then a pause.

Wait, is this even a dude?

Frantically skipping to the concept sketches in the back, I found Leo listed within the "Male Characters" sub-section. Well, that answered that, right?

But then I read the accompanying comments:
Leo is the first character from Germany. From the start, the development team wanted to create a character that would be loved by fans regardless of gender so they made the gender of Leo ambiguous on purpose. Of course, Leo is just a nickname based on the character's name.
Um . . .

What exactly does Namco mean by this? Is Leo's gender a secret to be revealed in a twist ending a la King from Art of Fighting? Is Namco deliberately keeping it a mystery, maybe until the next installment demands it be addressed? Or is s/he seriously just one of "those". . . ?

This would not do. For some reason, I needed a straight answer badly.

I turned first to the official North American Tekken 6 site. On Leo's character profile, I found multiple uses of masculine pronouns in reference to the character. So that settled it, right? We had a definitive answer from an official source.

Not so fast!

My mind still not entirely at ease, I did a little more research. Sure enough, the forums were telling me that these pronouns were a corruption of the original Japanese text. Japanese sentences do not grammatically require explicit subjects, so they are very often omitted, as happened to be the case in the Japanese version of Leo's profile. This poses a not uncommon translation conundrum with Japanese video games and anime, where there is perhaps a disproportionately high incidence of ambiguously gendered characters.

As if to confirm that the North American website editor had just chosen a gender for Leo at random without consulting a higher authority, the profile has actually since been updated to remove all gendered pronouns, referring instead to Leo now always by name.

That was only a minor victory for the it's-a-girl camp, however, and the extremely passionate debate, apparently raging across the Internet from the moment Namco unveiled this character almost two years ago, continues even to this day, the recent console release of the game only adding fuel to the fire.

Apparently in the Tekken 6 story mode Kazuya calls Leo a girl, but then Heihachi calls it a boy. Team Leopold notes that s/he is able to equip the males-only sledgehammer accessory, but Leona-ites counter that Leo's hair can also be customized with pigtails, which is otherwise only available to female characters. One side will point out that Leo is voiced by a female, but then the other will fire back that that female is none other than Veronica Taylor, using the same boyish voice that made her famous as the original English Ash Ketchum, the male protagonist of the Pokemon animated series. Mostly it's just people on both sides arguing that it should be totally obvious to anyone with eyes that Leo is a girl or guy.

Perhaps nothing better captures the bitter perversity than this, in which the self-appointed custodians of the Tekken 6 Wikipedia page debate Leo's gender--whether s/he is male or female, or whether there is even sufficient evidence to support the page's taking either side.

So there you have it--like Capcom before it, Namco has just made fools of us all. Personally, I'm just going to try to ignore it as best I can.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"

"Spoken like one who has never known the ecstasy of holding a still-beating heart in her hand," said Darcy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is Jane Austen's literary classic, now infused with elements of zombie fiction courtesy of Seth Grahame-Smith. I would estimate that about 90 percent of the text is Austen's work exactly. But in Grahame-Smith's alternate England, the land has become beset by "unmentionables" produced by a strange plague. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are now master zombie slayers, though combating the menace seems more a hobby than an active occupation.

Sprinkling in the zombie elements throughout, Grahame-Smith does not alter any of the crucial details or events of the story. He doesn't really even add any subplots--fans specifically of zombie fiction may be disappointed to find that the zombie story goes nowhere and has almost no impact on the main plot. Mostly, Grahame-Smith takes the bits of trivialities and small talk throughout and expands or replaces them with the here similarly mundane matters of zombies and ninjas. Where, for example, Darcy previously asked Elizabeth's opinion of books, he now asks what she thinks of "Orientals," with only minor changes to the details of the dialogue. The regularity of these references adds a new ambiance to the story, although they are never exactly subtle or organic. You would think the zombie menace would override all other concerns, but the passing references to the damned invariably give way to much fuller passages about marriage proposals and incomes. Considering all the awful things they witness, it is alarming how readily the characters' thoughts turn to dances and handsome soldiers. Speaking of which, the zombie angle does surprisingly add a bit of context that a modern reading of Austen's original work lacks--namely, it provides a prominent and reasonable explanation (well, reasonable assuming you've already accepted the presence of the undead) for why there are so many soldiers stationed in town.

Considerably rougher are the brand new action scenes that interrupt virtually every carriage ride with short sequences of zombie violence.
Suddenly engulfed, the zombies staggered about, flailing wildly and screaming as they cooked. Jane raised her Brown Bess, but Elizabeth pushed the barrel aside.

"Let them burn," she said. "Let them have a taste of eternity."

Turning to her cousin, who had averted his eyes, she added, "You see, Mr. Collins . . . God has no mercy. And neither must we."

Though angered by her blasphemy, he thought better of saying anything on the matter, for he saw in Elizabeth's eyes a kind of darkness; a kind of absence--as if her soul had taken leave, so that compassion and warmth could not interfere.

The gritty speech befits a well-traveled warrior who has witnessed too many atrocities, but it sounds nothing like the self-assured, witty young woman depicted elsewhere throughout the book.

As much as I adore Jane Austen, the details of the characters' lives can seem remote to me now, such that, especially in today's economy, it can almost feel like wish fulfillment escapism to read of characters who, seemingly with no professions or duties whatsoever, somehow end up with "incomes" that leave them at such leisure to think only of seeking wives or husbands. A story such as Pride and Prejudice could simply not exist today. Yet the details do not matter any great deal; the work endures because of Austen's penetrating realism in her depictions of characters and social interactions. When the zombies arrive, however, Grahame-Smith's concern is something altogether different, and none of that keen insight of Austen's is left evident. What we're left with instead is a schizophrenic narrative exhibiting an erratic grasp of its own characters.

But is that not the idea? Frankly, I'm not sure how even to assess such a project. I have read all of Austen's novels, but I know nothing of Seth Grahame-Smith. Without any greater context to consider, it is hard to judge how well his effort matches his intent, whatever that may be. Am I to applaud him when occasionally he is able to blend his material into the original to produce an almost convincing Austenian zombie novel? Or does the humor increase, the more conspicuous the non-native segments are, the more deadpan the original Austen material consequently becomes? Indeed, expectation of the latter was what drew me to the book in the first place, albeit I clearly did not think it through that this gag might be hard-pressed to endure for 300+ pages. Perhaps that the effect is inconsistent, with the best parts being the easiest, can leave me only unimpressed with his writing overall, which may again have been the point.

Most likely there isn't so much a point to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as just a directive to have some fun, which I did. But, then again, why wouldn't I have? It is, after all, mostly just Pride and Prejudice, one of the greatest and most enjoyable novels of all time, and a personal favorite of mine, which I was happy to have an excuse to read again.

In all fairness, the joke, thin as it may seem, does yield consistent humor for the duration of the book, and Grahame-Smith's contributions actually do get better as it goes on and he weaves in more dramatic additions. When one of Elizabeth's friends falls victim to the plague, that naturally reshapes all subsequent scenes involving the character. Yet somehow the words remain 90 percent Austen's, and the general obliviousness of the other characters to her nine-tenths dead condition is the funniest running gag in the book. I also admittedly found myself newly looking forward to the final "confrontation," which this time promised to be more than just an exchange of warnings and wit.

I do have to question the real merit of such an endeavor. It is a funny joke, yes, but is the gag made truly any funnier by the production than it already had been in the suggestion? Or, rather, the joke is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies exists at all, that Seth Grahame-Smith and his publisher saw this absurd whim through. But is it necessary to read the result in order to get the punch line? I honestly don't think so, but neither was the humor ruined for me in doing so. No, leave it to the sequels and followups to turn the guffaws to groans.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Too Many Yahoos

For a long time, my homepage when loading up my web browser had been Yahoo! Well, okay, that's not actually true--my real homepage is and has for the last three years been a Google page that says "Firefox Start," and that's a non-story for never--but I did usually visit Yahoo! about once a day.

The page loaded quickly and cleanly on every computer I tried. It was a convenient catchall highlighting the news of the moment, sports results, and celebrity gossip all in a small box labeled "Today" that took up only about one-sixth of my browser space. I didn't even have to scroll down. TV listings and movie showtimes were each just a click away. If I spotted any interesting headlines, I could click on a link for the full story, but I usually did not hang around long. I generally wasn't looking for comprehensive coverage, but just the Yahoo! front page was a handy way to get the top stories of the moment at a glance.

About a year or so ago, the Yahooligans running the place unveiled a new look for the site. I tried it briefly, found it not to my taste, and promptly set it back to classic mode on my account. I could not resist change forever, however, and last week I was finally forced to migrate along with all other visitors to a brand new Yahoo!

The new Yahoo! is frankly a mess. It still loads fast initially, but the Today box is far less informative. Whereas before it just listed the four hottest stories of the moment and then had tabs to refresh the box for sports or entertainment items, it now contains four headlines and then underneath has a horizontal reel of thirty-two specific stories, shown four at a time, which must be scrolled through manually by clicking repeatedly left or right on two arrow buttons. That's just too much clicking! What I specifically appreciated about the old Yahoo! was its minimalism.

Even worse is the sidebar of tabs--they call them "apps"--that link to other Yahoo! departments. What's annoying is that if I hover my mouse cursor over them, they will dynamically expand into page previews covering most of the main body of the page. That process already takes about a second of loading on average, but then it takes another second for the preview to close when I reposition my cursor. All this loading is particularly irritating because I expand and close these tabs only (but constantly) by accident. I didn't want this! Obviously, had I been interested, I would have just clicked on the button! Don't misinterpret my casual cursor hovering as interest on my part! And where the hell is the TV app?

So, yeah, it's all messed up now. Time to move on to MSN or some crap.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Red Star

No, not the Eisner Award-nominated comic book by Christian Gossett, designer of Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber. Rather, I'm here to discuss the excellent PS2 game based on that comic.

Released in 2007 after years of delays, The Red Star was to have been one of the last games by Acclaim. Acclaim went under in 2004 while the game was still in development--a shame because it would have been the company's finest title by far--but at least, three years later, players were able to enjoy the finished product courtesy of publisher XS Games. An inspired mash-up of side-scrolling beat 'em up, bullet hell shoot 'em up, and top-down multi-directional shooter, it is simply one of the best arcade-style action games I've ever played.

The bulk of the game plays out like a classical arcade brawler. One or two players proceed, mostly from left to right, through linear stages. Every screen-length or so, a pack of enemies must be eliminated before the players may progress. Combat is mostly hand-to-hand, but the game's main twist is that the player characters also come equipped with guns. This combination of melee and gun combat is reminiscent of the Alien vs. Predator arcade game, probably the best of the Capcom beat 'em ups I've played. A more current comparison might be Capcom's Devil May Cry, with its mix of swords and guns, but The Red Star actually does a better job of balancing the practical effectiveness of each, encouraging constant and seamless switching between the two for more than just showboating.

Melee attacks are still the most effective offense, but you'll regularly find yourself chipping away with the guns for free damage from a distance or offering support to your partner on the other side of the screen. There are also certain enemies that can only be disposed of with bullets, and most enemy groups contain one or two foes that are themselves long-range fighters, forcing you to be just as flexible when taking on these diverse parties. Also, just like in Alien vs. Predator, the guns overheat if you hold down the shoot button too long, at which point you must wait for them to fully cool down before firing again.

The two player characters even kind of resemble Linn Kurosawa and Dutch, the non-Predator characters from Alien vs. Predator. Makita is the fast female character with quick melee attacks that can be strung into long combos. Kyuzo is a hulking brute with slow but powerful attacks and an impressive beam cannon super move. Beating the game unlocks an entirely unique third character, Maya, who favors ranged "melee" attacks. All three characters feel very different, and each offers more depth than the average beat 'em up character of yesteryear. The most disappointing thing about the game is actually that you cannot change characters during the campaign, except by switching controllers with your partner, assuming that you are playing co-op and you actually selected different characters to begin with. Not only are some sections blatantly better suited for specific characters, but it's a real shame, given how distinct the three of them are, that you do not even get to enjoy the variety on offer without having to start a new save.

At the end of a stage, a "FEALTY IS DUE" warning message will appear and the camera will tilt to a top-down view to signal the arrival of the level boss. Most stages also include a mid-boss or two as well. These bosses are usually mechanical constructs fitted with multiple cannons. It is during these battles that the game really becomes more of a shoot 'em up. Clearly influenced by such classics as Contra, Gradius, and even Ikaruga (there is a boss named "Ikarius"), these fights rival the best in the genre for intricacy and intensity, and it is in balancing these high-level tests of concentration against the more primal joy of the beat 'em up action that The Red Star creates something new and masterful. As enemy bullets flood the screen in manic arrays, your attention must turn to dodging while firing blindly back with your own guns. Melee attacks can still inflict damage, but the head-on approach is impractical at best, suicidal at worst. Early bosses can be outlasted with just a steady hand and attentive eye, but later battles are so hairy that they can only be survived by deciphering the patterns and perceiving the safe spots ahead of time.

Thankfully, as a game designed for home consoles, The Red Star is a good deal fairer than any of its arcade inspirations, albeit still harder than any modern Devil May Cry. Instead of falling in one hit as in most shoot 'em ups, player characters have life bars as in beat 'em ups. This allows a little room for error during those boss battles. On the other hand, the game probably expects you to take a certain number of bullets as a result, and since there are never health refills until after a boss or mid-boss, it can seem impossible having to take on an end-of-level boss series after having already been worn down by a difficult stage's regular enemies. Whereas in Ikaruga your craft is as able at the final boss as it began at stage one, in The Red Star it is quite possible that you will have to face a level's toughest section while at your weakest state in it. Knowing that you'll have to save yourself for the boss does make for a more skill-intensive game than any other beat 'em up. The difficulty doesn't really ramp up until the final quarter of the game, but, yeah, it does get quite hard. Some mid-level checkpoints would have been a nice, progressive inclusion to make it more manageable for today's console players, but like the best old-school arcade games, it can still provide a great experience even if you never make it past level 15 without cheating.

There are other ways too that The Red Star could have been improved. I wish there were a way to attack floored foes, because it has never made sense to wait for an enemy to get back to his feet before resuming the attack. Even more annoying, of course, is having to wait for an enemy knocked off the edge of the screen to shamble back into view.

Visually, the game's grayish look adequately captures the bleak, perpetual winter of Russia, but the polygonal models do not pop as well as the colorful sprites of, say, Warriors of Fate, and I consequently had trouble at times distinguishing my partner from the enemy (not that there is any friendly fire, thankfully). There is also a lot of foreground clutter that can obstruct the player's view without improving the look of the game.

The game is overall unpolished, which is most evident in the bare-bones menus and transition screens. The throwaway story distills the acclaimed source material into just a series of senseless text briefings between missions. Makita and Kyuzo don't even have any lines. All dialogue is between Maya and another commander, Urik, who doesn't even appear outside of those briefings.

While there is no doubting the development team's love of classic arcade games, there is, as well as the lack of budget, probably a lack of practical experience behind some of the design elements. The targeting system is the game's most problematic mechanic. Although you can fire in any direction, this is not a twin-stick shooter, and the only way to move while firing in another direction--a necessity in all boss fights--is to utilize the auto-aim feature. In order to lock on to a target, you must roughly face in its direction and then hold down the auto-aim button. If there is no target recognized, your character will simply fix his aim in that direction. Unfortunately you cannot target an enemy that is downed or in an otherwise invincible state, and it isn't always clear that you've "missed" the lock-on until your target moves laterally and you find your character failing to track them.

I would also question some of those boss bullet patterns. The level 15 boss--the first major stopping point that I faced--was especially difficult because its various guns fired bullets of different colors. Having to evade hundreds of densely packed, fast-moving projectiles of just one color is already a tough prospect that forms the basis for many a bullet hell shooter. Having to simultaneously track bullets of three or more colors and trajectories--that becomes a whole-brain activity that, in my opinion, demands a little too much of the player.

Like a cooperative Mario game, the idea of a brawler-shooter hybrid seems so obvious, yet it took generations for any developer to really attempt it. Sadly, with the closure of the studio behind The Red Star, we are left with a fun but flawed game with no followup on the horizon. But just as The Red Star took inspiration from the classics before it to deliver an experience simultaneously old-school yet far fresher than any other beat 'em up of the last decade, I would direct any developer to look to The Red Star for where to start with the next great arcade game. This game already came so close to getting it all right that I would think it would be a simple process for any developer to just take the work begun here and tweak it a bit--add support for two more players, tighten up the shooting, clean up the presentation--to create the greatest arcade action game of all time, if only somebody had the guts.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Left 4 Dead

When I first heard the concept for Left 4 Dead, I was intrigued. A four-player cooperative Dawn of the Dead-inspired zombie apocalypse game, it sounded close to being the game I'd always wanted.

Alas, playing the demo left me pretty disappointed. The first-person shooting was overly simplistic, yet the experience offered little else. While the short, self-contained episodes seemed like the right approach, the lack of any real plot or objectives made it hard to engage with the thin, one-note narrative. Maybe it was because I was playing just a demo, but while the game's concept was clearly inspired by zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, the experience felt far more concerned with combat than escape. What was crucially missing was some sort of mission briefing to outline the survivors' plan, which, in better stories, can take weeks to precisely formulate. Not so in Left 4 Dead, starring the worst survivors ever, who decide to just brute force their way through open streets against mobs of mercifully weak zombies. As I stumbled around searching for the path to the next area, not only did I not know where I was supposed to be going, but I didn't even have any kind of map to tell me where I was. Because the zombie spawns were basically random, there wasn't even any sense of progress in the level to tell me whether I was getting deeper in or nearer to freedom, or anywhere at all.

Generous soul that I am, I was ready to attribute my poor experience to my having played it alone, which was clearly the wrong way to enjoy the game. Since I had no gaming PC and no Xbox Live Gold account, however, I shrugged and figured that was that--I still liked the idea, but the game wasn't really for me.

Just under a year later, the demo for Left 4 Dead 2 arrived on Xbox Live, so I thought I'd give the game another try. I had a chance to play it in local split-screen with one other player, which was still only half the full experience, but I figured it would give me at least a taste of the co-op. As it turned out, my original assessment was fairly on the mark.

Having another human being to play with naturally made for a more fun experience, but the game was fundamentally the same and still quite flawed. Moreover, playing it in co-op made me realize that the multiplayer had less in common with the single-player campaigns of other action games than with competitive shooters like Counter-Strike, which shouldn't have been surprising considering the pedigree of original developer Turtle Rock Studios. Whereas the co-op-focused Resident Evil 5 began with the strong single-player design of RE4 and then modified it substantially to suit two players, the Left 4 Dead formula feels more like a competitive death match mode that just placed all the humans on one team to fight against AI.

Characters ice skate around the map, stumbling into the enemy at irregular intervals in sudden and frenzied encounters. Confrontations are always direct and one-dimensional because the simple-minded zombie drones come straight at you, while all you can do is shoot or slap them down while maybe strafing frantically to avoid getting caught standing. The simplistic combat mechanics and randomness of enemy spawns preclude any more thoughtful approaches. There really is nothing more to the game besides gunning down zombies, and unfortunately the extremely dated shooting isn't even very good.

And it's not just the gunplay that feels archaic. The limited animations lack the variety and situational dynamism needed for a convincingly visceral experience, and there is a lack of polish that continually breaks the immersion. At one point my guy was pinned to the ground, his guts being torn out by an especially fierce variety of mini-boss zombie. According to the onscreen message, I was helpless in that situation and could only depend on my partners to save me by subduing my attacker. Thus, as I lay dying, I could only watch as this zombie queen ripped me to shreds while my buddy stood right next to us unloading clip after clip at point blank range into the undead bitch. She would not be distracted, she would not relent, she would not even react until, all of a sudden, she just dropped dead from having taken too much damage. Viewing the ludicrous "interaction" between these three stationary characters, I could not help feeling that there was some feedback missing there.

Of course, most (competitive) multiplayer shooters do not depend on immersive aesthetics. Ultimately it's about playing with other living people, and, however simple or complex the mechanics may be, the experience is only as good as what the players bring to it. I've no doubt that Left 4 Dead can be a lot of fun with three friends. But it isn't the zombocalypse game that I'm looking for.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

I always thought that the "Metroidvania" term referred specifically to the Metroid-like Castlevania titles. I thought it was supposed to be a clever and convenient way to distinguish the post-Symphony of the Night releases from the classical, more linear style of Castlevania. Now I'm hearing that any game of that Metroid-style action-adventure formula may be defined as a Metroidvania. Thus has the press dubbed Shadow Complex a Metroidvania. Moreover, apparently the Metroid games themselves are Metroidvanias. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but so be it.

In any case, the one "Castleroid" that I might consider superior to Symphony of the Night is Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance.

The third GBA Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow reunited the Symphony of the Night team of series producer Koji Igarashi, artist Ayami Kojima, and composer Michiru Yamane. In other respects as well, this was the true successor to Symphony of the Night.

The protagonist, Soma Cruz, was not a whip-wielding Belmont but, rather more like Alucard, an adaptable character capable of wielding whatever manner of weapon he encountered at random in Dracula's castle. In fact, Soma's arsenal offered even greater variety than Alucard's.

Excepting novelties and special weapons such as the Crissaegrim and Estoc, Alucard swung basically all of his swords with a quick horizontal slash. He would not alter his one-handed swing even for swords explicitly defined by the game as two-handed, such as katana or the massive Zweihander. Other weapon classes, including knuckles and flails, offered only slight practical variety while seeing less use overall.

Soma, on the other hand, favored vertically swinging broadswords, but he could also wield shortswords, spears, axes, hammers, unique weapons like the whip sword, and even firearms. And the type of weapon equipped had a real effect on how Soma played; although he swung the axes in a similar overhead manner as with swords, a heavy axe was much slower than a sword and had a more particular attack range, as only the blade was actually capable of hitting.

Some of the cooler weapons could only be won through the unlocked "Boss Rush" mode, but the main adventure still treated the player to a steady mix and flow of items to toy around with. For comparison, I spent about three-quarters of the sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, wielding just the Claymore while feeling frustrated and impotent.

Perhaps Aria of Sorrow featured fewer obscure items to hunt down than Symphony of the Night, but it instead offered you the souls of your defeated enemies as dropped loot. Consolidating Alucard's messy mix of heart-powered traditional sub-weapons and MP-powered spells and abilities into a single unified system, soul-absorbing allowed Soma to equip the powers of his foes, including such classics as the standard skeleton's bone toss. Because almost every enemy had a soul to collect, Soma's list of abilities could grow quite massive, and in Pokemon-like fashion, the drive to catch them all could keep players going long after the final boss was beaten.

Even Aria of Sorrow's story was the most ambitious since Symphony of the Night, though perhaps not ambitious enough. Set in the near future, Aria of Sorrow took place after Dracula had supposedly finally been slain once and for all--a moment not yet depicted in any game--though trouble was clearly afoot as Dracula's castle rose without its master.

Getting rid of Dracula as a character was a gutsy move, but some Castlevania traditionalists were less than enamored of his successor. At the same time, the game completely squandered the future setting, as Dracula's castle and everything in it remained distinctly medieval. Nevertheless, the twist-filled story was once again a compelling part of the adventure.

Where Aria of Sorrow most improved upon Symphony of the Night was in the level of difficulty. Neither as pitifully submissive as Symphony of the Night or Harmony of Dissonance, nor as cruelly punishing as Circle of the Moon or Order of Ecclesia, Aria of Sorrow achieved nearly the perfect balance. Soma was not nearly as godlike as Alucard, so bosses could pose real threats. It was quite possible that you would encounter the Game Over screen a few times, but then you could usually come back and persevere with a better strategy or just by being more careful.

There were still stats and level-ups, but progress felt more subtle. Unless you were going out of your way to hunt for souls, you would usually feel at just the right level for where you were in the game, so that victory was more often a matter of player skill than character stats.

Dawn of Sorrow included the best "bonus character" mode by far, while Portrait of Ruin featured a cool two-character system and a hero who could wield whips as well as swords. Both are fine representatives of the Symphony of the Night platform-adventure-RPG paradigm, and even Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance were excellent games in their own right, but in my opinion Aria of Sorrow remains, from a gameplay perspective, the definitive Metroidvania Castlevania experience. Even so, I can't say it was as significant as Symphony of the Night, either historically or personally. Three iterations after Symphony of the Night, the formula was still addictive, but it was no longer groundbreaking.

Perhaps equally important, even disregarding historical context, Aria of Sorrow, due to reduced budget and/or ambition, just does not achieve the same impact as Symphony of the Night, which features fully voice-acted dialogue, pre-rendered cinematics, and one of the most gripping beginnings ever to make it feel like a major affair. Aria of Sorrow boasts excellent production for a GBA game, and it still has Kojima and Yamane, but the handheld experience is just not the same. The gameplay is more refined and as fun as ever, but it does not carry the same weight, and thus it feels more like a diversion to pass the time than an event to set aside time for. Nevertheless, if you have room for only two Castlevania titles, Aria of Sorrow should be one of them.