Wednesday, April 22, 2009

20cc's New Policy

I know I have yet to deliver that promised Prince of Persia review (that no one cares about 'cause the game's already been out half a year) but I've been very busy lately. Because I have basic pattern recognition abilities, I recognize that this isn't likely to change in the near future, so here's the deal:

In the coming month and a half or so, I have the SAT, NYSSMA, AP exam, finals, SAT IIs, and ACT. At some point in there, I have to open my summer house, and somehow avoid failing my classes in the mean time. What this means is that I hardly have time to hunt down every game on my list when Gamefly (unavoidably) fails to ship the right one. (Their latest feat has been to send me Fable 2, from LA, (the other side of the country) because they don't even have that in at my distribution center. It should be obvious that Fable 2 was not high on my list, but apparently they can't get a hold of anything from later than last October.) What this means to you, is that you're going to start seeing some holes in my publication schedule. I will try to keep getting games, and reviewing the ones I can, (and want to) but I can't promise they will be anything you'll give a shit about.

I will try hard to get back into a constant schedule as soon as possible, but that may not be until mid to late June, and even then it may be a bit off, since I'll be away from my video games and Internet almost every weekend, and some weeks. I assure you, however, I will be back.

Also, if any of you follow Abnormality, it will likely suffer even more, because I sure as hell won't have time to come up with good ideas for it. i don't feel quite as bad about that, however, because I never pretended to keep a schedule for it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

23 preview: Spewer

Spewer: puke, eat, puke some more
Today, Edmund McMillen was kind enough to let me try the Spewer beta. Now, Spewer hasn't had a lot of attention, but I think that will change once it gets released. Spewer was made by Eli Piilonen, the programmer, Edmund McMillen, the artists, and Danny B. for music, and Jordan Fehr for sound effects. Right now it's only in beta, but it should be released in about a week (4/28/09).

Spewer is about a cute little...animal(?) that, well, spews. It regurgitates and consumes his own vomit to solve puzzles on a course laid out for him by The Doctor. Puke, eat it, swim in it, use it to boost jumps, it's all about the spew; he pukes more than a frat boy at his first frat party. You only have a limited amount stuff at the beginning of each level (represented by the puke bar at the bottom of the screen), but you can re-consume it throughout the level to use it elsewhere (in the same level). That about covers it for game concept, eventually it gets a little more involved (after chapter 1).

As for the art, it's similar to a lot of other of Edmund's games, which personally, is a style I really like. Edmund himself says it's a mix between Triachnid and Aether. To me, the basic premise of Edmund's style is this; cute, yet utterly disgusting (to most people). The game makes me a little bit nauseous when I play, I mean the whole idea of this cute little organism recycling his own vomit is a little unsettling, but it looks very cute. The background consists of The Doctor, a comparatively large figure who looks like a mad scientist. He seems to be the one who has made you and is creating the challenges, but seeing how there isn't much of an intro, and there's no ending so it's hard to tell the storyline (which there will be, along with cut scenes, in the finished version).

The game play is fun and original, providing the player with challenges that show them new skills and test those skills. To be good at the game you have to learn fast and be kinda lucky. Sometimes game play is inexact, which can get frustrating. Then again I kind of suck at these kind of games, and there's still a week until the release, so a lot can change. So, with a little polish, which it's getting, this game could really turn in to a stellar little game. For me the game lasted about 2 and a half hours, but I take long on beating games, so more realistically you can probably finish it in under 2 hours, which is a good size for a flash game, and they might add more before release. I played the game all at once, there wasn't any save feature yet, which there will be in the final.

When this game is finally released try it out, you'll have fun and there might be an interesting story. The art style and physics are very enjoyable, and you'll probably be compelled to play the whole thing. Besides the main campaign there's also the level editor, with all the pieces in game (there's a lot of different tiles) to add some game play, and I think there are some unlockable levels for once you beat the game.

Friday, April 10, 2009

23 reviews: Spelunky

Name: Spelunky
Author: Derek Yu
Version: 0.99.8 (oh so close to final)
Platform: Windows
Price: Free!
Players: 1
Website(s): Official topic thread, Direct Download(8mb), Spelunky Wiki
Video: Featured

So, it might have seemed like I ran away forever, like a drunken and abusive father who you barely know, but no, I just drank myself in to a stupor while wasting my money on strippers, only to eventually remember my bastard child and decide to visit again, just to ask for more money... metaphorically of course. In reality, between school work, games, and just being lazy, I haven't posted, but now, after months of waiting, here is my almost decent review of Derek Yu's highly addictive and exceptionally fun game Spelunky. Oh, and before you continue, if you decide not to read my rambling and seemingly intoxicated opinions you might just want to skip to Rock Paper Shotgun's great article on this little gem. Anyway, if you're still reading, I have no idea why you would, here's the review:

Title screen, and I'm on top!

Spelunky is what might happen if you squished Mario, Indiana Jones, and Awesomeness into 8mb of pixels and chiptunes. Take the dungeon exploring, cult killing, gem stealing ruggedness of the Indiana Jones series (the earlier ones, that is) and mix it with the frenzied risk taking, goomba jumping, coin collecting cuteness of Mario and you've got the basis of a Spelunky. In Spelunky you are a small spelunker (explorer of caves) spelunking (exploring caves). Why is not completely clear, but what you do know is that there is gold and gems for collecting, traps and creatures for avoiding/killing, maidens for rescuing and a door at the end of the level. Now Spelunky is slightly deeper than this, but as far as story line goes this is about it.

What makes Spelunky special is how it handles gameplay. Spelunky is a very challenging game. This isn't necessarily a negative. Unlike newer games which handle difficulty by kicking you back a few minutes or even hours of gameplay, or by not punishing you at all, (20cc says: I'll have a lot of this is talk about if I ever get around to reviewing Prince of Persia) or like back in the NES days, when challenging meant memorizing levels so you wouldn't get caught by unexpected surprises, and if you died too many times then oh well, back to the beginning for you. You could say Spelunky is more like older games in that when you die you go back to the beginning, the very beginning, but it isn't really the same beginning as before.

Instead of making you memorize each level, Spelunky forces you to actually become good at the game. How do they do this? Randomly generated levels. And it does it pretty damn well. Every level is unique. Unlike some platformers that tell you to jump there, avoid this, kill that, Spelunky makes you figure it out. You have to decide for yourself, "How am I going to get to the exit." Now this may sound simple enough. Plan out an escape route and go with it. But you can't see the whole stage, only a certain section where you are, and while you're exploring there's tons of baddies and traps to take away your 4 points of life. To add to the mayhem, you only have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to complete each level before an invincible ghost comes out and kills you. Yeah, did I mention that Spelunky was tough? (You do get items and weapons to help you on your journey though, I'll let you find out what and how).

Me getting hit with an arrow trap as i fall to my death on some spikes... yeah, you'll see this screen a lot
(btw, that's the damsel in the upper right corner, and that red stuff is blood)

*minor spoiler alert* Every time you die you lose everything, except for your highscore, your death/win count, and your shortcuts. Oh, what's this? Shortcuts? Yes, well, instead of rewarding you for exploiting cheats to find shortcuts (like Super Mario) Spelunky makes you earn them. See, Spelunky is split up into 4 areas, each with 4 levels. The shortcuts, which cost lots of money (probably at least 4 playthroughs worth), will give you special doors to the beginning of each area. Now for the other part of what carries over: Your highscores are made up of your amount of money, kills, and maidens at time of death (not necessarily all in the same session). I'll post a picture below for the highscore room. You might notice the doors, those are minigames (supposedly) that open when you achieve a certain level of awesomeness, (time game is completed in, kills in single session, and highest amount of money at any given point) and yes, the game can actually be won. You might also notice that I have died over 400 times and have not won a single game, but that's okay, because Spelunky is so fun, and every time I die it's either because of recklessness, a mistake, or a new enemy in a new area that I didn't know was deadly, but I get a little better and (hopefully) get a chance to give more money to the shortcut guy, and maybe ever get a new high score!
408... 409...410...When will it stop?!?!

I'm sure you'll have a great time with this game. It's challenging, but rewarding, and every time you play it's a new experience, you're exploring an endless chain of caves, and slowly getting better at it. This game has a strange addictive quality. It never gets boring, and there's always something new, so you won't mind wasting large quantities of time on it. This game isn't perfect, some of the random level generation is strange (such as the damsel being created in a contained square around a spike trap, making it impossible to save her) but mostly it works pretty well. In most of the levels you can reach the exit without using a single bomb or rope. And the traps are comparatively fair, because the enemies can be killed by them too.

Bottom Line: download this game, it is well worth it, before you know it you'll be hitting 100 deaths and might even still be stuck on the first area. Don't be discouraged though, like any good skill, you just need to practice. I'm highly looking forward to the final version of this game and maybe being able to talk to the creator; Derek Yu (I have yet to contact him), who has also made Aquaria; a completely different, but yet good, game.

Alright, I guess that about does it for my rant/review. Hope your eyes didn't burst in to flame, and if they did, you can't sue me. Next up: Finally getting around to compiling the Venbrux interview, and maybe a review of Gish, once I beat it. Keep on gamin'!

P.S. I finally beat Spelunky!!!!! The ending was kinda neat, I won't ruin it for you, but after viewing the credits it kind of gives you an accomplished feeling, as well as being impressed by how few people made it (there's about 5 people total in the credits, excluding the beta testers). I shall post my new stats here: Me: 1 Spelunky: 719

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

20cc reviews: Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

With Gamefly's inability to deliver Weapons of Fate in time for this week's review, and the fact that I'll no doubt have to take next week off for travel, it seems I'm looking at another month or so without a break in the release schedule. WoF and The Godfather 2 are already out, and before I've finished them I'll have Velvet Assassin to contend with. I may end up cutting a couple games out of my schedule, depending on their continuing interest level.

In WoF's absence, I had planned on writing a completely irrelevant Prince of Persia review for this week, but Gamefly couldn't get that in time either, so I was left to find something at Blockbuster for my review. (It goes without saying that they didn't have WoF in stock either.) I settled on H.A.W.X.

For a little background, I've had a rather sporadic relationship with Tom Clancy games, and flying games in general. Every so often, one catches my interest, but only for a little while, and I've never been particularly good at either. It may in part be that I played most of these games when I was younger and sucked at games, and over time came to ignore Tom Clancy games because they're pretty much all the same. And yet here we have a Tom Clancy flying game. How refreshing. My aversion to this genre would have kept me from playing the game, but a friend suggested it to me, and I ended up getting the demo on XBL, figuring I had nothing to lose. (And nothing else to play, since Gamefly fails at shipping.)

It turns out, the game is fun. I would go so far as to say addictive. They accomplish this, first of all, by making it ridiculously easy. I say ridiculously because I finished the game in a day, and as I said before I'm pretty terrible at flying games. Combat, realistically, consists less of pulse pounding dogfights with opponents firing their cannons blindly, hoping to wing their enemy and maybe chip off a little health, and more of blowing the shit out of helpless ground targets. Less realistically, while most fighters might carry two to four missiles, H.A.W.X.'s fighters regularly came equipped with 200 Joint Strike missiles, 40 multi targeting air to air missiles, and rocket pods (just to give a possible weapon load). In addition to the typical flight mode, H.A.W.X. adds an alternate “assistance off” mode (referred to as OFF, in capitals, for no apparent reason) that makes for easier dogfighting. What it does, essentially, is removes most of the HUD, such as the altimeter and speedometer, disables the ERS, (the “enhanced reality system,” basically an advanced targeting system) changes to a camera angle that makes targeting a pain in the ass, and disables the failsafe that prevents the plane from slowing too much and stalling out. While that seems to be mostly negative, it really is worth it to be able to cut the plane's engine, spin around 180 degrees and fire a couple of missiles into the face of that enemy jet that thought it was going to get away. Also, admittedly, it's pretty fun to stall the plane and then pull out a second or two before hitting the ground. (Tangentially, the game would have been better if the player could use a Mechwarrior-style customization system, perhaps selecting weapons that fit into a weight limit, instead of choosing from preset options.)

As far as missions go, the gameplay consists of a combination of area defense (boring), escorts (frustrating), ground support (the closest to realistic of all the mission types), and infiltration (rare but fun). Like GTA4, the game really doesn't stray from its model, except in a couple minor cases, for instance an escort mission in which the player's targeting and ERS only works while near the escort target, (an AWACS) or a defense mission that ends with the player having to intercept cruise missiles before they reach the target. Despite maintaining a strict model, the gameplay remains fun because of the graphics, and the feeling of power that comes as a result of watching a multi targeting air to ground missile wipe out a tank platoon.

But you knew I would have to talk about the story, didn't you? I can't say I know exactly what role Mr. Clancy took in the writing of this game's plot. However, I was under the impression that his stories were popular because of their realistic, near future disaster scenarios that incite the public's fears because of the possibility that it could actually happen. In H.A.W.X. (According to Wikipedia, this stands for High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron, a typically contrived acronym that is also inaccurate, since, as a support unit, the H.A.W.X. squad spends most of its time at a rather low altitude. I don't think the acronym is ever explained in game, but then I did stop listening to the dialogue about halfway through.) the protagonist is a decommissioned Air Force pilot who is hired by the upstart PMC Artemis Global Security. The early part of the game sends the H.A.W.X. to put down rebellions and such, and ends with Artemis signing a contract with Brazil and supporting them in a war against an alliance of South American states called Las Trinidad. The flaws in the writing are minor at first, like the fact that Artemis is not only angry but for some reason surprised that the U.S. tries to intervene in a full scale war between a friendly nation and a vocally anti-American alliance. My personal favorite quote comes up during the defense of Brazil's capital, when a fellow pilot remarks, “Las Trinidad is going for the throat. This is a coup d'état!” A coup d'état is a military revolution, and requires someone inside the country to be rebelling. A war between nations is something very different. However, I became convinced that this character was simply mentally challenged, since he also has a tendency to repeat the same line every goddamn minute.

About halfway through the game, however, in a fit of terrible predictability, Artemis gets a better deal from Las Trinidad, defects, and declares war against the U.S. Somewhere along the line, Artemis apparently confused the definitions for “company” and “terrorist,” because I really don't see how such a plan would be profitable. Whatever Wall Street's current condition, America remains a major economic and military power. A war with the U.S. would first cause Artemis's stock to crash, and then cause all of their soldiers to die. However, because we've long abandoned any sense of realism, this six year old private company manages to actually stage a surprise attack that disables America's defense network, takes several military bases, and sets up a jamming system that disables electronic targeting systems nationwide. There isn't much of a change in gameplay however, since with the protagonist's defection, Artemis's previously advanced forces are replaced with the same tanks and dated fighters that the rebels were previously using.

(Here's a video of someone who apparently doesn't know how to dodge missiles.)

I couldn't honestly say that I didn't enjoy my day with H.A.W.X. Unfortunately, it seems that all of the games I've played of late have been fun without any real valuable content. About a year ago I read an article about the improving condition of video game writers. Why haven't I seen any indication of this? The last game I played with a convincing plot was Silent Hill 2, which is now going on a decade old. Before that was Kane & Lynch, which has been overwhelmingly criticized for its graphics and the fact that the characters “swear too much.” (Whoever wrote those reviews have apparently never been in the real world. The characters in K&L swear less than my friends or my parents.)

What I'm saying is that I like games to be enjoyable, but I would also like to feel that I'm doing less to contribute to America's deteriorating intellect. It's really not that hard to write a convincing plot. All that's required is that the writer asks himself three questions: “Are my characters realistic? Is my plot fresh and plausible? Am I not a flaming idiot?” If the answer to any of those questions is no, it's time to get outside help. Please people, have some standards. There's a difference between games like Saints Row that are cleverly written and lack plot only because it's meant to be a parody, and games whose writers assume that we can't tell the difference between characterization and bullshit.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

20cc reviews: Resident Evil 5

I have never played any of the old Resident Evil games. As such, I won't be able to judge the new game's plot in the context of its predecessors. My experience with the series is as follows: I saw part of the movie on TV once, played Resident Evil 4 at a friend's, rented (or something) the first and second movies, watched them, watched them again with Biscuits, and pretty much forgot about the whole thing. I took two main things away from my experience. First, if the older games are like 4, they would probably be pretty fun, but I'm too lazy to find out. Second, Albert Wesker is a very cool villain.

Then the new game came out, and I thought it would be a fun way to get some cooperative play in. Unfortunately, I didn't really get to try the coop, because it took about two days for me to figure out how to work the split screen. (Here's a hint. You start a single player game, and then press start on the second controller. Unfortunately, like CoD5, the two screens are letterboxed, which wastes a lot of space. I've heard it said that this has something to do with the resolution setting of the TV, but I'm not about to mess with that, because I would then have to recalibrate the screen and I don't really know how to do that.)

So now that I've finished the game, I've got to think that someone meant to get a hold of the unused ideas folder from RE4, but it turned out that they accidentally used the ideas that had been used already. For one thing, the two games play exactly the same. I won't complain about that so much, because I liked RE4, but the similarity persists. Not only are almost the same breeds of Plagas present, but several enemies return that would not be expected to, realistically. The chainsaw-wielding Dr. Salvador makes an appearance, though slightly reskinned, and JJ the Gatling-gunner returns, red beret and all. There are more subtle similarities as well, such as the Reapers (very much like a more dangerous version of RE4's Novistadors) and the test subjects discovered at one point in the game (which have a lanky appearance somewhat similar to the Regeneradors). El Gigante even returns in the form of a disgustingly easy boss creature named Ndesu. At first, the only apparent change is that Leon Kennedy has been replaced with another returning RE character, Chris Redfield. He's a lot like Leon, except less attractive, less intelligent, and ripped like a fucking tank. (They did that so that they could include a ridiculous scene at the end in which Chris knocks over a boulder... somehow.)

Unfortunately, good enough can never be left alone. It would have been acceptable to just make a direct sequel to RE4 and call it a day. But Capcom wanted to add a partner for Chris to talk to, and Sheva Alomar was born. And as no one apparently tried to come up with new enemies, no one bothered either to try and program an acceptable AI. It wasn't so much an issue with the enemies, who were expected to be not particularly smart. However, when Sheva decided to stand behind me and try to shoot through me to hit the enemies, a problem manifested. It didn't hurt me, but when Sheva has 12 shots left, and I'm expected to resupply her once she's out, I found myself wishing she would wade into the water and get eaten by a crocodile rather than waste any more of my ammunition. However, there is then the issue of the inventory. If it were possible to kill off my dead weight partner without failing the game, I would have half the space to carry my stuff. Unlike the relatively intuitive space based system of its predecessor, RE5 uses a slot system, where each partner has nine slots, and each item takes up one slot, be it an egg or an RPG-7. Furthermore, armor—of which there are two kinds—take up a slot in the inventory. Therefore, if you want both characters to be protected as thoroughly as possible, you'll have bought both Chris and Sheva the melee vest and the bulletproof vest, be out 40,000 dollars or so, and have only seven slots left in either inventory. Wouldn't you think the characters might be wearing their armor, rather than carrying it?

And then there's the racism issue. RE5 always bothered me because of all the people who complained that it was racist to be kill black people in a video game. I can't understand that. If a black person plays a game that involves killing Caucasians, is that racist? The game takes place in Africa. The people there are African, meaning, unless we're in South Africa—which I doubt—they will be black. If all of the enemies were white, it would be not only racist, but stupid. No, my problem with the game was Sheva. Apparently, since the sole reason for a female partner is the sex appeal, and since Americans don't find Africans attractive, Sheva had to be not quite African. So instead she has Caucasian features, a complexion about as dark as an Arab watered down by a generation or so of white parents, and a voice that fluctuates between British and “spoiled American bitch.” This falls into the racist and stupid category I mentioned before. Early in the game, a guard stops the pair and tries to search them. Not only does Sheva not respond in Swahili, which you'd think would be her native language, but she gives him her best pampered American princess, “Get your hands off of me!” Wouldn't a trained soldier understand that a guard would have to search them for weapons before they enter a sensitive area? I suppose this scene was included so that we would understand early on that Sheva is a bitch, so we wouldn't develop any emotional connection with her. So many problems would have been solved if the guard had done his job and shot Sheva just then. Alas he failed, and left Sheva to torment me throughout the game by, for instance, walking out into the open as Wesker is preparing his one hit kill attack.

As I suggested before, Capcom's ineptitude was not limited to programming AI. They also managed to hire some of the worst voice actors available. Sheva is a perfect example, though not the only one. I accept that a lot of the blame rests with the writers, for expecting the actors to deliver such juvenile lines. However, there are a few characters that couldn't make Whitman sound convincing. Excella Gionne, one of the main villains, (It's really not a spoiler, because if you couldn't tell she was evil from the first or second time she was mentioned, you probably need to be told.) is another graduate from the failed African impersonators' school, and goes through the game with a Latina accent. Only one character in the game pulls off an African accent and I can't remember his name, because he has about fifteen minutes of screen time in the whole game.

The game isn't all bad, however. I was actually surprised by how well the game used its graphics. While most new games showcase their graphics by demonstrating their ability to make everything as dark and unintelligible as possible, RE5 actually uses lighting effectively. There were a couple parts in the earlier levels that actually looked downright pretty. Unfortunately, since there is so much more sunlight than in RE4, the creators had to justify Las Plagas being in sunlight. Supposedly, the researchers found a way to increase Las Plagas' resistance to sunlight, which leads me to wonder why flash grenades still kill them.

And then there's Wesker.

What really made the game for me was that Wesker was actually involved in the plot. I've decided that he's the only character in the game worth caring about, despite having a voice actor who, while not exactly bad, sounded so stereotypical it hurt my head. The rational part of me wanted to hate him, for his silly voice, for looking like the character designer used exactly the same outfit as J.C. Denton from Deus Ex, and for being everything typical of a Japanese series archvillain, but the rest of me couldn't quite do it, because he's just so cool. However, a lot of the coolness wore off during the second stage of the boss fight, partly because he looked a little overdone, and partly because it took some running, a single bullet, and a button mashing sequence (not quite a quick time event, since I believe it was only one button) to defeat him.

Also, they insist on continuing to say the Las Plagas. This translates to the The Plague. I don't even speak Spanish, and you're telling me not a single person at Capcom can figure that out?