Thoughts: Runner 2 – Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm AlienHaving never played the original Bit.Trip games, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first downloaded the recently-released Runner 2. What I was pleasantly surprised with was a well-rounded platformer with a lot of charm and some very focused mechanics. More than anything, Runner 2 reminds me of Super Meat Boy. But while Super Meat Boy was intentionally difficult and brutal, Runner 2 maintains a well-paced curve of difficulty and challenges while being easier on the blood pressure and state of mind.

At the heart of Runner 2 lives a series of very simple mechanics. While running, you can jump, slide, block, kick, and bounce on springs. Each ability is tied to a button on the controller and the game does an excellent job training you at when this ability should be used. Then it’s simply up to you to combine these abilities and get through the increasingly difficult levels. Jumping and sliding quickly become the most common solutions to obstacles like holes and floating enemies, but you always need to be ready to kick your way through a barricade, block objects, or bounce over a hazard. Oftentimes you’ll be performing all of these abilities in a matter of seconds, requiring pinpoint timing.

It’s a good thing, then, that the controls are so precise. Similar to Super Meat Boy, the controls feel tight and responsive enough that you never feel like a mistake or death was the game’s fault. Maybe you pressed the block button when you meant to kick (or vice versa), or maybe you didn’t jump up the series of quick steps at the right pace, but I never ran into a situation where I died and felt like I had input the correct commands faster than the game could process them. If anything is a sign that Runner 2 is an excellent platformer, it’s that.

Thankfully, you don’t have to learn the timing of the mechanics entirely on your own. The gameplay syncs up very smartly, and beautifully, with the music. Each item you collect, jump you make, enemy you avoid, and more triggers sound effects that play into the soundtrack in ways that are very natural and methodical. It’s a big part of Runner 2’s charm and also a big part of why the game, while often difficult, never quite boils your blood like Super Meat Boy did.

The melodious soundtrack also contributes to the almost whimsical atmosphere of the game. The music is very light and airy and fits well with the heavily pastel art style. It’s almost through these things that the game can be so challenging at times but keeps you in a pleasant mood as you attempt a tough spot over and over. Much of the art is downright goofy, especially the strange creatures in the backgrounds of the levels. In addition, a lot of the levels have very funny names which contribute to keeping spirits high. If Super Meat Boy was a simple-yet-difficult platformer with the intention to break you, Runner 2 is a simple-yet-difficult platformer with the intention to encourage you onwards.

And onwards you will go because there is a substantial amount of content to burn through in Runner 2. Each of the several worlds features a distinct look and feel and is made up of a dozen or so levels. My favorite has to be the harbor-themed second world, mostly because it reminded me of the first world of Donkey Kong Country 3. Several of the levels have multiple paths, some easy and some hard, as well as multiple exits that can unlock extra levels. Additionally, many levels have treasure chests to collect that unlock additional costumes. Occasionally, you’ll find retro cartridges that unlock challenging bonus levels with old-school graphics (very similar to the warp zones in Super Meat Boy). Moreover, each world holds an unlockable character who plays a little differently. Each individual level has multiple stages of completion, depending on whether or not you collected every item, finished in a certain way, and hit a bulls-eye on the bonus game at the end of the level. Needless to say, getting 100% completion in this game will definitely take some effort.

I’ve been digging into Runner 2 for about a week now, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a great game to pick up and play casually for an hour or two each day or week, even if you’re like me and must compulsively get a perfect rating on every level. If you’re a PS+ subscriber, the game is currently free, so I’d say there’s no reason to not give it a try. But even if you’re not, it’s available on every platform you could think of, and it’s a charming, enjoyable experience well worth your time.

Posted in 360, Articles, PS3 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts: Papers, Please

Papers, PleaseI’ve opted to greenlight very few games on Steam. First, there was Black Mesa. It was the first game to be approved through the program and yet it still isn’t available. Second, there was Cook, Serve, Delicious. Sadly, it never received enough votes and still sits idle. Third, there was Papers, Please. It was approved and now, a good six months or so later, it’s finally available on Steam.

Papers, Please is an interesting little game where you work in a border checkpoint of a fictional communist nation during the ‘80s. The goal is simple: follow the rules issued to you and approve or deny as many people for entry into the country as possible each day. It starts off as simple as checking to see if they have a passport that’s not expired, but eventually it gets so complex that you could be juggling as many as five documents that need to be checked.

There’s a story as well, woven smartly between the layers of bureaucracy. The number of people you process has a direct impact on your pay, which you must use to pay for housing, food, and heat for your family. Often, money is very tight. If a family member gets sick, you’ll need to pay for medicine as well. Sometimes, people passing through the checkpoint may attempt to bribe you or the security guards will bring you in on scams; these offers become very attractive when half your family is sick and you haven’t been able to afford heat for several days.

Each traveler trying to enter the country seems to have a small storyline of their own. Sometimes you’ll see the same person each day, trying and failing to abide by your strict policies. Sometimes wanted criminals will try to pass through and you’ll get a chance to apprehend them. A lot of times you have to make fairly difficult choices. Early on in the game, a man passes through the checkpoint with good documents and tells you to be kind to his wife, who is next in line. His wife, however, doesn’t have the required documents to enter. Do you stick to the rules and turn her away, separating the two of them and potentially dooming her to the country she is fleeing? Or do you let her in regardless, risking the ever-suspicious attention of your government overseers? It can get tough!

Eventually there are even long-term storylines you can stumble into, but I don’t want to give too much about the game away right here. It’s worth noting that the game has 20 endings and an endless mode, so there’s certainly enough content to keep you busy for a while.

In an attempt to “judge” Papers, Please, I found myself frustrated when I couldn’t find anything about the game that I had issues with. The game feels totally unique and I don’t know that I’ve ever played anything like it before. In addition, any time something happened that annoyed me in the game, it was my fault. I wasn’t paying close enough attention; it’s not the game’s fault that I forgot to check for matching birthdates or appropriate seals on documents repeatedly.

Papers, Please is only 10 bucks on Steam and it’s well worth the price. There’s plenty of content to make the game last a while. I’ve been playing it pretty much nonstop and have only unlocked three endings so far; I haven’t even started to get into endless mode. I guarantee you haven’t played anything quite like it before, and for that reason alone it’s worth checking out.

Posted in Articles, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How To: Replacing SNES Cartridge Batteries

As old as it makes me feel, SNES games are getting to be 20+ years old at this point. Because back in those days consoles didn’t have on board hard drives, SNES games (and others like them) save your progress using a small battery that’s soldered to the board inside the cartridge itself. Sadly, these batteries are starting to die and the ability to save progress on these old games fades once that happens.

But fear not, there is something you can do. It’s very easy, with a little practical know-how, to replace the original batteries on your carts and keep saving on these games alive for years to come. I should warn you that this process will cause you to lose all saves on the cartridge and have to start fresh, but that’s going to happen in a couple of years anyway (if it hasn’t already) and is a small price to pay for maintaining gaming history.

Super Mario Kart

Our example for today’s project.

For my example today, I’m going to be using the above copy of Super Mario Kart. I’ve actually already replaced the battery in this game, but you’ll still get the idea of what I’m talking about. Some games don’t actually have batteries to replace, which is always nice. These mostly consist of arcade-style games like fighting games and, for example, the Super Star Wars series. Just so you can see, here’s my copy of Mortal Kombat II. Obviously, it has no battery to worry about replacing:

Mortal Kombat II

Mortal Kombat II has no save system, so no battery.

Super Mario Kart, however, does use battery backup for track and lap times, as well as unlocks. The first step is to open up the plastic cartridge itself. You’ll need a security bit tool to remove the small screws that hold it together. I managed to find a set that came with 3.8mm and 4.5mm security bits off eBay for less than five bucks. A set like this will allow you to open all kinds of carts: NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, etc. For the purposes of SNES, you’ll need the 3.8mm bit:

Super Mario Kart

Use your 3.8mm bit to remove these screws.

Simply remove the screws and set them aside. They’re pretty tiny, so be careful not to lose track of them!

Super Mario Kart

I had to circle them just because they’re so easy to lose.

Upon removing the top of the plastic cart, you’ll see the back of the board itself.

Super Mario Kart

What you’ll see upon opening the cart.

If you flip it over, you’ll see the front of the board and, more importantly, the battery itself. It’s typically in the upper left corner. To replace it, you’ll obviously need a new battery. There are lots of options out there for replacements, but I recommend getting this one. It has the same style of soldering tabs as the original batteries, already attached to it. Not only does this make it look original, but the tabs make the replacement process super easy.

Now’s where soldering comes into play. Once your soldering iron has heated up enough, flip the board to the back side and hold the iron against the 2 solder points here:

Super Mario Kart

De-solder these two spots to remove the old battery.

You may have to hold it there for a couple seconds, the old solder might not melt immediately. As the solder melts down, you just have to kind of wiggle the old battery off of the board by pulling gently on it. It definitely helps to have a friend providing a second set of hands to do this. When successful, the battery will be removed and you’ll see the two holes where the tabs went through the board.

Now is a good time to take note of where the tabs were inserted on the board. The tab that’s attached to the top of the battery is the positive, and the one attached to the bottom of the battery is the negative. Pay attention when you remove the old battery which tab was inserted into which slot, because you’ll need to put your new battery in the same way. In the case of Super Mario Kart, we can see that the positive tab is on the right:

Super Mario Kart

The tab on top is positive, so positive is on the right.

Keep in mind that every game is different. For example, here’s a copy of Donkey Kong Country that I recently replaced the battery in. The tabs on this one are located at the top and bottom instead of the left and right, and the positive tab is the one on the bottom:

Donkey Kong Country

The Donkey Kong Country battery attaches to the board with positive at the bottom.

Anyway, back to Mario Kart. Simply insert your new battery onto the board by sticking the tabs through the holes (obviously making sure the positive and negative are positioned the same as the original battery). It may take a little wiggling, but the battery will eventually snap into place. Note that it may not actually be flush against the board itself, which is fine.

Flip the cart back over and you’ll see the tabs stick up through the holes. All that’s left to do is a simple solder job! Solder around the tabs, essentially securing them to the board just as it was before you removed the original battery. It doesn’t have to be nice and pretty, but there should be a good connection.

Super Mario Kart

Solder here – the same place as the old battery.

The solder will cool and harden very quickly, so it won’t be long before you can set the board back in the cart. Remember that the board goes face down in the back of the cart, it won’t fit together any other way. Using your security bit, tighten the screws back into place and you’re done!

I typically test my batteries after the job is complete. This can be done with a voltometer, but where’s the fun in that? I like to stick the game in my SNES and play up to a save point (or in the case of our Mario Kart example, do a race to save a track time). Then I turn off the SNES and remove the cart from it. I then put the cart back into the console and turn it on to check and see if my save has successfully be preserved.

If you care about keeping your library of old games fully functional in the decades to come, this is a process you’d do well to practice and get good at. The nice thing is that once you do it for a game, you shouldn’t have to do it again for another 20 years! It’s worth noting that this can be done for all sorts of cartridge-based games, but you should do research first to see if different battery sizes, etc are needed. My only experience is with the SNES, after all. I hope you found this helpful!

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Visual Narrative in Dark Souls

Dark SoulsI’ve been talking a lot lately about the benefits of marrying storytelling and gameplay experience. While thinking about it recently, I was reminded that I always wanted to spend a day examining the visual narrative of Dark Souls. So what better time than now, during the summer!

Dark Souls is fascinating in that at first glance, it seems to have a very vague or shallow story. The setup is simple: you are undead. You are in an asylum where undead are locked up for eternity. You are freed from this asylum and set out on a quest to light bonfires before the world loses the gift of light altogether. It sounds like a pretty simple fantasy video game quest, and while very bleak and dark, the world seems pretty typical of fantasy settings as well. However, to risk sounding cliché, not everything is quite what it seems. If you look deep enough, at least.

It’s entirely possible to play through Dark Souls and notice absolutely none of the world-building that’s going on in the dangerous areas you trek through. However, once you start paying that little extra bit of attention, you’ll find an insanely deep world, absolutely steeped in its own history and mythology. It’s a game that proves that it pays to be extra attentive; everything from the slightest bit of flavor text on an item description to the gender of a random corpse has meaning and has been placed deliberately.

The opening cutscene outlines the most basic elements of world history in Dark Souls: long ago there were stone dragons that were eventually hunted down by a group of demigods who brought fire (and, as a result, light) to the world. The main demigod was Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, who had a following of loyal knights. There was also a witch with several daughters, who all excelled at the use of fire magic. There was a massive skeleton creature named Nito, First of the Dead, who seems to have created disease. There was also a skinless dragon named Seath, who betrayed his own kind to help Gwyn hunt them down. Finally, there was the Pygmy, about whom we get little information.

The cutscene doesn’t say much more than that, other than the overview of who you are, which I already mentioned. We later learn from dialog with various characters that the bonfires created by Gwyn eventually started to burn out, worrying the demigods. The original witch apparently decided to create a new source of fire in her city, deep underground, but the experiment failed miserably. The result was the creation of demons, who took over her city as their own. In the actual game, we know this location (and see the effect of the takeover) as Lost Izalith, deep inside the Demon Ruins.

That brings us to one of the very first examples of visual storytelling I noticed during my time with Dark Souls. It’s mentioned at some point that Gwyn decided to battle the demons and took a handful of his best knights with him, leaving many others behind to guard his own city (the in-game location of Anor Londo). As anyone who’s fought tooth-and-nail to beat Dark Souls knows, Anor Londo is populated by fancy Silver Knights. These enemies are, in fact, the soldiers Gwyn left behind to protect his city (and his daughter). What makes this an interesting example of visual storytelling? We’ve been fighting knights wearing the exact same armor set, scattered throughout the world below Anor Londo. The difference is that the knights we’ve fought prior to the Silver Knights all appear to be a charred black color. As it turns out, the Black Knights we fight in the ruins of mankind’s civilization are the knights that Gwyn took with him to battle the demons. The game tells us through a few item descriptions that the knights who battled demons with Gwyn were charred black by the demons’ flaming attacks.

Dark Souls

Much more than ‘just another boss.’

It seems like a really small thing, even if it is a careful detail, but the impressive thing about Dark Souls is that it is absolutely full of these examples. You can’t take two steps without finding something that was placed, colored, modeled, or written in an absolutely deliberate way. Sometimes, even the way that enemy A.I. behaves will tell you something about the world that Dark Souls takes place in. In fact, my favorite example of storytelling in the game involves the A.I. of one particular boss.

From paying attention to relevant item descriptions and dialog, we find out that the original witch had numerous daughters and a single son. After her failed experiment, most of the witches went insane (and you fight several of them over the course of the game). One of these daughters was killed, and her body placed on an altar deep underground. While descending underground to find the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith, you encounter a massive molten creature. Obviously, giant creatures like this usually serve as boss fights in the Souls games. However, as you approach the monster and run around in front of him, it becomes very apparent (unless you attack him directly) that he’s not interested in fighting you. In fact, he seems to be staring a little alcove off to the side where a small altar sits. Upon the altar is a very old, decayed female corpse. If you go so far as to loot the corpse, the items you acquire include the very tattered robes that the various witches wore. The second you pillage the corpse, the fiery monster roars in anger and the boss fight with him begins. Killing him opens the way to the lost city down below.

Talk about masterful use of visual storytelling! If you haven’t figured it out already, the giant monster is obviously the lone son of the witch. The corpse on the altar is female, and the items we receive from it include the robe worn by witches. By paying just the slightest bit of extra attention while playing, it’s clear that this is the corpse of one of the daughters and the monster, her brother, is watching over her. Pilfering her enrages him and he sets off to avenge her.

Of course the game never tells you that this is what’s happening outright. It’s easy to just play without paying attention and think “looting that corpse triggers the boss fight.” But when just the slightest extra attention, everything fits together. Clearly, this was all done intentionally. The gender of the corpse, the robes you find upon it, the behavior of the giant monster, the area that opens up to you after killing him; everything has a place and a specific reason. Even more, the robes you get from the corpse have high resistance to fire. If you’ll remember, the witches were talented in fire magic.

While that is my favorite example of the visual and interactive narrative in Dark Souls, the examples don’t end there. There are exceedingly long YouTube videos explaining all the mysteries you can uncover in the forlorn drowned city of New Londo. The game is filled with dozens of hints at the nature of “humanity” as a commodity. There are people who spend great deals of time theorizing who certain characters in the game are, and back up their theories with little bits of text and visual cues that they’ve found while exploring. I honestly can’t think of another game that displays such a great degree of this phenomenon.

At the end of the day, this all just goes to show how impressive video games are as narrative vehicles. Sure, most games will convey a story through cutscenes or audio logs (which I believe we need to move away from). But then there are games like Dark Souls, where every little detail you see or hear in the world means something. I hope we continue to see unique and engaging new storytelling mechanics in games in this upcoming generation because it’s honestly one of the most exciting things in gaming right now.

Posted in 360, Articles, PS3 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Game of the Generation: SSX

And so we come the last game in this article series. I don’t think it should really be any surprise as to what game it is, considering how often I’ve blanketed praise onto it in the past. In fact, it’s almost a little sad that this will be the last time I write up something about it….

SSX

SSXIf I have to give the “Game of the Generation” designation to a game that I’ve spent a lot of time playing, then including SSX in this series is pretty much mandatory. Even though it was released late in the generation, SSX is easily the game that I’ve dumped the most hours into on these consoles. The crazy thing is that I barely touched the single player; almost all my time with SSX was spent in online global events.

Even stranger is how playing SSX came to be an almost daily event for me. I bought it on release because it looked like simple fun, even though I had never played the series before. It sat on my shelf for about a month almost entirely untouched. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it; I just had lots of other stuff that I wanted to do. One day, a friend and I were sitting on the couch, pretty bored, and he pointed to SSX and asked what it was. I threw it into the console and fired up the global events that I’d heard about pre-release and something just clicked.

I was having so much fun in the online trick contests that I didn’t even realize how much fun I was having. The rushing sense of speed, vibrant and glowing color scheme, the flowing design of the mountains, and the constantly remixing soundtrack—it all worked together to pull me into the experience. It wasn’t mindless in the way it drew me in and I wasn’t zoning out as I played it, like it might sound. I was, instead, absolutely connected to the experience and everything I’ve just mentioned I noticed while I was playing it. I was simply having fun.

How often do you have fun while playing a video game? I started to think about it a couple months later, when I was absolutely absorbed with SSX (and had become pretty good at it, to boot). Lots of games these days are certainly entertaining, but when I say fun, I’m talking about something simpler and purer. I mean the sense of fun where the game makes you cheer (either out loud or silently) at what’s happening on the screen. Or when the game makes you laugh. Not because it’s funny, but because you’re enjoying the experience at a core level. There have been a few such games this generation for me: Burnout Paradise, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, Bulletstorm. But while all of those games eventually died down after a couple months, here we are a year and a half after release and I’m still playing SSX every week. Even more amazingly, I still have barely touched any features except trick-focused global events.

As I’ve already mentioned in other posts, a big part of what draws you into SSX is how every element of it mixes together to form a cohesive whole. As you can imagine, this game would absolutely fall apart if the way you interacted with it was not intuitive. Thankfully, the controls are natural and deeper than you might imagine at first glance. SSX has successfully taken the right stick trick controls of the Skate series and incorporated them into a much faster paced and arcade-style environment. The ability to wind up your tricks for extra spin before you’re in the air makes each jump and subsequent feat feel natural and intentional.

Thankfully, the intuitiveness of the controls allows you to feel like you’re still in full control even when at nearly out-of-control speeds. The way the mountain flies past you and the visuals blur in parts and stay in focus where necessary establishes a genuinely impressive sense of speed. Even trick events, which are traditionally a bit slower than the races, get so fast that it feels like disaster could strike at any moment. But, thanks to the controls, you can avoid potential obstacles and even use them to your advantage regardless of how fast you’re going.

SSX

Mt. Eddie is probably the best DLC for any game.

SSX’s sense of speed helps to connect gameplay to visuals and style. Little elements like visual cues on your character help keep you focused on the action rather than looking for UI elements to give you information. When you’re in super mode (called “Tricky”), your hands burn with glowing light that leaves little light trails behind you as you ride. It’s a neat little effect and looks especially cool while you’re boosting (and you should be, as you have infinite boost in Tricky mode). Other cues like red on grindable objects and blue lights on potential ramps give you ideas of what path to take down the mountain on the fly.

The most impressive visual element, however, is that every single mountain looks different. You could walk into a room and see someone playing SSX, and if you’ve played it before, you could easily tell which mountain they’re on. My personal favorite range is the Himalayas because who doesn’t love grinding down the Great Wall of China? The game’s sense of style and carefree attitude come through in the visuals as well. All the characters you can play as look like they’re having a blast. Often, they’ll just start dancing once you finish a run (provided you don’t do poorly). In the same vein, the characters will often shout as they’re flying down the mountain or performing particularly crazy tricks. The timing on these exclamations is perfect, as they nearly always happen when you pull off something absolutely ridiculous, like grinding on the helicopter that follows you along.

The audio is one of SSX’s greatest strengths for far more reasons than just the shouts of the characters. The soundtrack is spot on; not one song seems out of place or jarring. The music is just as high-energy and colorful as the rest of the game. Never before have I been introduced to so many songs and/or bands in a video game that I’ve gone on to start listening to in real life. The most impressive thing about the sound design, however, is that the game remixes the music while you play. If you’re doing spins during a particularly long grind (and you should be!), the song currently playing will get caught and start to repeat the last second or two at whatever rate you’re spinning. If you end up really high in the air for a huge jump, the music will fade down. When you finally impact with the ground again, the music acknowledges this drop and crashes back to full volume in celebration of your landing. SSX is simply a very satisfying game to play because of the way everything in it works together to form an experience.

So, what’s the future for SSX? Who knows? EA confirmed that the game sold well and they’d be interested in developing it further. However, it’s by no means a top-tier franchise so I wouldn’t expect them to push it onto the new consoles right out of the gate. But the potential (and hopefully, promise) of SSX continuing is there, so maybe in a year or two we’ll be cheering out loud as we slide down mountains at 60 fps. A man can dream, anyway.

Regardless of whether the series continues, SSX made its impact on me and still continues to do so even now. Like Demon’s Souls and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I’ll remember SSX for a long time to come and when I look back on this generation of consoles, this is one of the games that I’ll remember most fondly. We need more games that embrace the idea of having fun. You know, games where things like statistics, achievements/trophies, kill/death ratios, and the like aren’t that important compared to the simple joy you feel while playing. Here’s to games that bring us joy.

Posted in 360, Articles, PS3 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Game of the Generation: Deus Ex – Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human RevolutionIn my Bioshock Infinite review, I wrote about how important it is that a story-driven game is cohesive in all of its individual elements. The music needs to fit the theme and mood of the story. The visual design needs to tell a story on its own, so that you can infer things about the world without being told (show, don’t tell). The gameplay needs to have some element linking it to the narrative in order to make you feel like you’re actually impacting the world. On top of all that, the story itself needs to engage you enough so that you form your own opinions about the various story beats. It’s a difficult feat to accomplish, and no game this generation accomplished it as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Human Revolution builds a world that’s absolutely believable. One of the core concepts behind writing science fiction is that you take things recognizable in the modern world and tweak them just enough that they seem foreign and, sometimes, fantastical. In this sense, the visual design behind Human Revolution is a resounding success. The guns are recognizable as guns, yet have little visual quirks or high-tech attachments that seem very plausible. Clothing style has changed and the style of clothes worn by more privileged people is somewhat inspired by history and is pretty silly (which can be said about every decade). Architecture is familiar yet foreign, and the hard edges and angles of buildings and interiors follow the same design principles as the guns and clothing. While I’m not going to sit here and say the future of Human Revolution is absolutely going to be our world in 20 years, it’s convincing enough that it could be. And more importantly, everything you see in the game looks like it belongs in that future or that it’s a product of that future.

Aesthetics aren’t everything though. Human Revolution is ultimately a game about the role of technology in human society. Appropriately, the technology in the game is mostly believable. How long will it be before some company applies the features of something like Google Glass to a contact lens or artificial eye? How long until someone who’s lost a limb can replace it with a fully functional and mechanical replacement? Technology like this is already out there, being worked on. Human Revolution simply takes it a step further, into “what if” territory, for the sake of telling a story and creating a fun game to play.

Smartly, the game that you get to play isn’t just about messing around with crazy technology, either. Human Revolution forces you to get off the neutral player sidelines and formulate your own opinion about the ethics of transhumanism. If you play the game honestly (as opposed to deciding beforehand to play it a specific way), the ending you choose and how you treat the characters you encounter very likely reflects your actual opinion on the concepts that it presents to you. You may choose to go lethal after a particular story bit angers you or perhaps you’ll start sneaking around more when you’re confused and want to avoid hostile contact until you have more information.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

If China ever builds a double-layer city, I’m moving there.

The inclusion of “conversation boss fights” forces you to read a character and talk him out of or into something as best as you can. I’ve seen people complain that Adam Jenson is a bit bland, but those people seem to be missing the point. It’s the same reason Commander Shepard is bland; the character is there for you to paint with your own opinions on the situations encountered. Ultimately, the popularly lamented ending of Human Revolution doesn’t exist to bring closure to the character of Adam Jenson, seeing as he’s more of a projection of you than a character with a story to tell. The ending of the game is really just the point where you have to reflect back on the arguments given for and against the game’s primary dilemma and decide once and for all what your opinion on the matter is. It’s actually a little cathartic, as the stance you decide on ends up pushing the world in that direction. When these arguments eventually come up in the real world, your or my opinion likely won’t be so impactful.

Regardless, my point is that the ending isn’t as disappointing as people like to say. Human Revolution is a game about the journey and how you conduct yourself over the course of that journey. To make the comparison a second time, it’s not unlike Mass Effect. Mass Effect isn’t so much about where you arrive but how you arrive there. Human Revolution is the same sort of deal.

Of course, Human Revolution isn’t one of my favorite games from this generation just because of the themes and setting. It’s simply a joy to play. The takedowns (both lethal and nonlethal) are visceral and satisfying. The sneaking mechanics give you all the tools you need to feel like the ultimate covert operative while the variety of weapons and upgrades provide you with plenty of options for “going loud.” The hacking minigame fits the game’s cyberpunk universe and the upgrade system allows you a wide variety of options, so much so that it can be difficult to pick which upgrade you want next. The options available to you are impressive; even now, on my fourth playthrough, I’m still finding routes through areas that I didn’t know existed.

Human Revolution is so memorable and successful because it understands the world it takes place in. It knows what is and isn’t plausible in its own universe and as a result, it’s very easy to become wrapped up in the game’s atmosphere. Furthermore, it serves as proof that not every sci-fi game needs to be a set piece-laden explosion fest. While certainly full of action, the drama and tension in Human Revolution is much more cerebral. It shows us that talented and dedicated developers can take a game concept that’s older and hasn’t been iterated on successfully in several years and turn it into something refreshing and fun (a trait shared by the recent Xcom: Enemy Unknown). Like any game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has flaws, but it powers through them with the sheer will of its overall vision. And here’s to games that have a well-realized and cohesive vision.

Posted in 360, Articles, PS3 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Game of the Generation: Demon’s Souls

This generation has pretty much come to an end. I know there are still big games coming out for the PS3 and 360, like Grand Theft Auto V, Saint’s Row 4, Gran Turismo 6, and others, but I’ve decided that I’m no longer buying games for these consoles. I am in full-on next-generation mode and November can’t come soon enough. But before I say farewell to this generation entirely, I’d like to spend a few weeks looking back at the most impactful (to me) games from the last seven or eight years. Each week I’ll write about a different game and I’ll probably try to keep this up for three to five weeks. Please note that, as with my Game of the Year lists, the order in which I talk about these games is completely irrelevant; I consider them all on equal footing. Let’s get started!

Demon’s Souls

Demon's SoulsThe most striking thing about Demon’s Souls was that it was a bit of a shock. Apparently, a lot of people (including me) had really been missing the old days when games were not so transparent and were difficult enough to make you feel like you accomplished something when you won. The crazy thing is that we never really realized that we missed those days. When Demon’s Souls was quietly released (under the cover of bigger, equally excellent games like Uncharted 2), it was like everyone suddenly had this spark shoot through then and they realized that Demon’s Souls was the type of game they had been unconsciously wanting for a decade. But Demon’s Souls wasn’t just striking because of what it brought back but also because of what it created.

But first, what did Demon’s Souls bring back? We were a good ways into a generation of games that held your hand. Lengthy tutorializing and on-rails games that feigned freedom had subtly been turning gaming into something less intuitive. Gone was the feeling of having to think about what you were doing. Even more, gone were the days where the game actively punished you if you failed to learn a mechanic or system sufficiently. Demon’s Souls crashed us back down into reality. It dropped us head first into a world that, while being very bleak and dead visually, was very much alive. The world of Boletaria wasn’t just full of life in the form of enemies and gameplay concepts; it was actually active in pushing them up against you.

Beating the Phalanx at the Boletarian Palace may have just signaled you completing the first level of Demon’s Souls, but by the time you did so, it felt like you had beaten an entire game. That feeling then continued to pop up during several moments deeper in the game, particularly in the levels full of poisonous swamps. That sigh of relief and feeling of empowering joy after a white-knuckled boss fight had been missing from games for a long time; hell, well-designed boss fights in general had been missing from games for a long time.

A real sense of accomplishment and lack of hand-holding weren’t the only things Demon’s Souls brought back to gaming. It also harkened the return of something I thought I’d never see again: video game rumors. I don’t mean “rumor has it this new game will have feature blah blah.” Remember when people used to whisper at school about how you can totally acquire the Triforce in Ocarina of Time? Or how beating the Elite Four 100 times in the original Pokémon would open up a secret room beyond the ending? Or the purpose of the dock in distance in the first level of Goldeneye (which you could actually get to with a Gameshark, it turns out)? These are the kind of video game rumors I’m talking about.

When someone mentioned to me that you could actually kill the Red Dragon that constantly pesters you during the second level of Boletarian Palace, it blew my mind. Then I went and did it. I stood in the specific spot at the top of the tower and over the course of thirty minutes, I fired 200 arrows at it. Just when I was about to call it quits, the dragon died and I acquired its soul. That was the moment where I realized that Demon’s Souls was a game that was going to continually surprise me and catch me off guard, no matter how good I got at it. It’s effective because it adds that sense of mystery to the game, and hints that the game is a lot deeper than you might know. And it wasn’t incorrect: Demon’s Souls is a lot deeper than what you might initially think. Don’t even get me started on the first time I tried to wrap my head around how World Tendency functions.

Demon's Souls

Looking silly is a small price to pay for good protection.

So, then, what did Demon’s Souls bring to gaming that was new? If you’re familiar with either of the Souls games at this point, the bizarre form of online multiplayer is likely to be one of the first things you mention. At first glance upon release, the multiplayer in Demon’s Souls seemed straight-up broken. Why would I want to play with random strangers with whom I can’t even communicate? Why would I want to be invaded by other players and have to fight them off? As it turns out, the developers very smartly designed multiplayer to support the style of game that Demon’s Souls was. It was a game about small, difficult challenges over the course of a long, secluded adventure. It was not the type of game that would have translated well into a local coop kill-fest or online trash talk.

However, the most important thing about Demon’s Souls’ online features was the sense of community it created. Demon’s Souls is a lonely, bleak game where it feels like you are taking on untold numbers of hostile creatures with no backup. Yet, at the same time, the use of in-game messages and ghosts made it feel like you weren’t alone. The odd ghost of another player, equally struggling against the odds, encouraged you to keep going. Carefully observing the bloodstain of dead players helped warn you of impending danger. Glowing messages left between players provided help and hope, or sometimes unexpected death. Demon’s Souls made you feel simultaneously alone and not alone, and it worked amazingly well.

At this point you may wonder why it’s Demon’s Souls, and not Dark Souls, that I’m writing this article about. Yes, Dark Souls is mechanically a more refined and polished game. Yes, Dark Souls has the most well-realized and best designed open world I’ve probably ever seen in a game. Yes, Dark Souls takes pretty much every aspect of Demon’s Souls and pushes it further. Yet, at the same time, nothing that happened during Dark Souls could be as surprising or refreshing as the experience of playing Demon’s Souls. It’s likely just because Demon’s Souls was a known quantity and I had nearly mastered it when Dark Souls came out.

Dark Souls just didn’t feel as surprising or mysterious because the secrets of Demon’s Souls had all been uncovered. Also, I simply didn’t experience as many player messages or bloodstains in Dark Souls, which detracted from the experience a bit. Make no mistake: Dark Souls is one of the best games released during this generation, but compared to Demon’s Souls, I would never call it a “Game of the Generation.”

So thank you, From Software, for taking a chance on something like Demon’s Souls. Taking chances in the video game industry is difficult, especially in a largely uniform generation or in the somewhat stagnant environment of Japanese game development. Thank you for making the game that we never knew we always wanted. In closing, an anecdote: I bought Demon’s Souls from Best Buy on the day that Modern Warfare 2 was released. The employee running the register told me that I was the first person that day (buying a video game) who was not buying Modern Warfare 2. Here’s to the games that release quietly but are remembered for far longer than a year.

Posted in Articles, PS3 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment