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Sound Shapes Gets User-Generated Content Right

I reviewed Sound Shapes over on the Secret Identity site this week. It’s a wonderful game that I think is the Vita’s first “must have” experience. Sound Shapes also falls under the genre of “Play, Create and Share” Sony games that started with Little Big Planet and continued with ModNation Racers. Of those three games however, Sound Shapes is the first one that has really clicked with me in terms of the user-created content. I’ve already spent more time with the community aspects of Sound Shapes than with both Little Big Planet and ModNation Racers combined.

I think there are two main reasons why I keep coming back to Sound Shapes. The first, and most important reason, is that the gameplay mechanics in Sound Shapes are excellent. I mean light years ahead of the Little Big Planet series. I never got used to the floaty controls of LBP, and as a result, never really got into the game. I thought ModNation was very solid mechanically, but it’s a racer, not a platformer, so I’m predisposed to like the gameplay of Sound Shapes more. Sound Shapes pretty much gets everything right–the jumping, the “stickiness” of your little blob to certain surfaces, and the degree of control you have when piloting ships or taking a running leap. The controls are tight, responsive and just a joy to experience.

The second reason I think Sound Shapes get the user-created content right is that it strikes a balance between the amount of options you have, and the ease of creating content. Little Big Planet had a ridiculous amount of content to use in creating levels, and Little Big Planet 2 had a million different ways to use that content. ModNation had less options, but actually creating the levels was fun and easy (laying track, placing objects, etc.) I feel like Sound Shapes strikes the perfect balance between the two. You unlock a sizeable amount of content options for level creation by playing through the campaign. And, creating the levels (especially on the Vita) is very simple and actually fun. Resizing and reorienting objects with the Vita touchscreens is a breeze, and the level editor keeps things simple in terms of creating and sharing levels. The way community content is sorted and featured in Sound Shapes also makes it easy to find and try new levels all the time.

For a $15 downloadable title, it’s really impressive how much Sound Shapes gets right. Whether it’s the mechanics of the game, or the way it approaches user-generated content, there’s a lot here for other developers to use as a blueprint moving forward.



The Year With No New Games-Part 5: “Mastery”

This weekend, I relaxed and didn’t play a game at all. I didn’t load up 10000000 on my iPad. I didn’t play Spec Ops: The Line on my 360. I didn’t charge up the DS Lite in order to play yet another game of Civilization Revolution. Instead, I just sat back and watched as some of the best speedrunners in the world plied their craft for the
Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon to raise funds for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

Last time, I discussed briefly the idea of tedium of play that comes with 100% completion. Watching these players break down games by pixel movements with perfect timing, like some of the jumps in cyghfer‘s run of Bucky O’Hare on Hard mode, where the player loses a life with just one hit, or exploit game glitches like dram55‘s use of ceiling sticking in Super Mario World and cyghfer’s use of a glitch that allowed him to enter walls and teleport up a screen in Mega Man 2 showed that mastery of a game inside and out can come with “tedium of play.”

One of my secret sources of gamer pride is the fact that, once upon a time, I could complete Streets of Rage 2 in less than 50 minutes on hard mode using Axel. Because I only owned 4 games for the Sega Genesis (or the Sega Mega Drive, if you’re so inclined), I would say that I mastered Streets of Rage 2. I knew combos for each character, the timing and placement for weapons dropped by enemies or found in the stage, and most importantly, a certain standard for quickly I could finish the game and how high my score should be.

A quick word about Streets of Rage 2, which I will contend was a better game than any of the Final Fight games. I’d go as far as saying that Streets of Rage 2 is the finest side-scrolling brawler of the 16-bit generation. I’d also go as far as saying that beating Streets of Rage 2 with Axel or Max on Mania mode, the highest difficulty level, is a very different experience than beating it with Blaze or Skate. Finally, while Streets of Rage 2 had no in-game achievements (until the re-releases on Xbox Live Arcade and in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection), beating Streets of Rage 2 with Blaze and Skate on Mania mode would be as close to 100% completion as one could get. It took months of attempts to grinding the game, finding the optimal timing and strategies to handle enemies before I could beat it with Blaze. It took years of off-and-on play until I could beat it with Skate. So why didn’t I consider this tedious?

The easy answer would be that I didn’t find grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I mastered it because I had no other games to play. Another easy explanation would be that tedium looks very different to an adolescent boy with limited responsibilities than to a man with limited leisure time. But I think that the tedium comes with the artificial structure, that the implementation of achievements, trophies, and Gamer Points and my psychological acceptance lays the foundation for me to find the act of play a chore.

Grinding Streets of Rage 2 and grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are very different things, even though the same vocabulary is used to describe both. Grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I could beat it with the toughest characters to use on the hardest difficulty mode meant that I was still playing through the game, progressing through different environments, hearing different tracks, and experiencing different stimulation. Grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement meant, as I mentioned last time, meant that I was herding other willing players into a building on a multiplayer map and blowing the building up with C4, hoping that the game would recognize those kills as mine.  Grinding Streets of Rage 2 meant that I was achieving mastery; grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement that I was filling up a bar in a game.

Seeing the speedrunners come near world record times for games like Batman (NES) and Bad Street Brawler reminded me of what mastery of a game and pride in your play looked like. Whenever you’re feeling burnt out on gaming, take a look at speedrun archives like Speed Demos Archive, a stream on SpeedRunsLive, or even a playthrough on Let’s Play Archive. Sometimes, seeing someone who really knows what he or she is doing with a game is the cure to gaming burnout.

Also, please check out Team Sp00ky‘s archive of the Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon (part 1 and part 2) and donate to RAINN, either through the Kings of Poverty’s collection or directly.

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My Long Road to Finishing inFamous (Part 2 of 2)–I’m An Unfocused Gamer

The older I get, the less interested I become in actually reviewing games, and the more interested I become in discussing my experiences with them, and what I learn about myself when I play them.

As I talked about in my last post, it took me three years to finish the first inFamous game. Had I not gotten a copy of inFamous 2, I probably never would have gone back to finish the first game. But I did, and I really liked the game, and that got me thinking. How many other games have I walked away from early on, and missed out on an interesting experience? What does that say about me as a gamer? Is finishing a game the exception rather than the rule for me?

Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list of games that I started but walked away from in the past year or so:

Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)
Resistance: Retribution (Vita)
Section 8: Prejudice (Xbox Live)
MLB ‘12 The Show (Vita)
Mortal Kombat (Vita)
Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2 (DS)
Bit.Trip Saga (3DS)
Battlefield 3 (XBox 360)
Cthulhu Saves the World (XBox Live)
Dead Island (Xbox 360)
Shank 2 (PSN)
Super Stardust Delta (Vita)
Shadows of the Damned (PS3)
Two Worlds II (Xbox 360)

Here are the games I bought, never started, and traded in for something else:

Gears of War 3 (XBox 360)
Uncharted 3 (PS3)

Here are the games I actually played through to completion, or am actually engrossed in:

inFamous (PS3)–completed
Dark Souls (PS3)–completed 100-hour campaign and am 20 hours into second playthrough
Saints Row: The Third (XBox 360)–completed
Mass Effect 3 (XBox 360)–completed and played the last 3 hours again for the “Extended Cut”
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PS3)
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3)
The Walking Dead: Episode One–completed, but it was short
Minecraft (XBox Live)–at least 15 hours in and completely addicted
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational–easily my most-played Vita game
Marvel Pinball (PSN)–I’ve put several hours into this one
Sound Shapes (PS3)–about halfway through and loving it

So, judging from that list, I actually finish very few games. In fact, most of the time, I start a game and play for a few hours, then walk away. That’s my most frequent pattern of behavior as a gamer, which is kind of disturbing to me. Most of those games on the first list I bought brand new at retail for $60 (or $40 for the Vita/3DS games). That’s a whole lot of money I threw away on games I didn’t spend a lot of time with. With Gears 3 and Uncharted 3, I probably got $40-50 in trade for $120 worth of games I didn’t play. Not a good return on my investment.

So what else do these lists tell me? Well, I can see that I certainly like RPGs and games with heavy RPG-like elements. Really, Marvel Pinball and Sound Shapes are the only one on the “finished/engrossed” list that don’t fit that description (yes, even Hot Shots has RPG elements). Many of those games on my “finished/engrossed” list also either have a strong story (Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Enslaved) or let you create one for yourself (Dark Souls, Minecraft). They also have immersive worlds to explore an, in some cases, get lost in (inFamous, Saints Row, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Minecraft).

My takeaway from all this is that I tend to enjoy the games I can get lost in, but that I frequently leave a game before giving myself enough time to get lost in it, which is counter-intuitive. One way to fix this is to not get caught up in the idea of needing to get a game when it first comes out, but rather getting it when I actually have time to give it a fair shake. Also, instead of juggling fifteen games at the same time, I can focus in on one or two, and really devote some time into completing them, or at least spending enough time with them to make an informed judgment.

I’ll post in the future about how well I’m actually sticking to this strategy. My first order of business will be to revisit a couple of games on that first list and see if I can get back into them. I think Dead Island will be my first challenge, as I had a lot of fun with it before walking away.

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Remembering Sony Liverpool’s Roots–Brataccas

I was pretty bummed to hear about the closure of Sony’s Liverpool Studio this week. While they are primarily known as the studio behind the WipEout franchise nowadays, Sony Liverpool has a long and storied history that dates back to the early days of PC. Before they were rebanded in the early 2000’s, Sony Liverpool was known as Psygnosis, and they made some amazing games.

Of all the games that Psygnosis either developed or published, my favortie is their first one–Brataccas. Brataccas was a science fiction RPG in which you played a genetic engineer named Kyne that has developed a way to create super humans. When the government wants to use the technology to create soldiers, Kyne refuses and is branded as an enemy of the state. In order to clear his name, Kyne has to travel to a mining colony on an asteroid called Brattacus and gather the evidence that will prove he’s been framed.

The project rose from the ashes of the infamous Bandersnatch concept that Imagine Software was planning to release as one of its “Megagames.” When Imagine went under, some of the key people from the studio formed Psygnosis. Brataccas was what became of Bandersnatch.

When Brataccas came out for the Amiga in 1986, it actually got mixed reviews, mostly because the controls were pretty wonky and it was very buggy. But if you could get past those things (and I did), the game was absolutely amazing. It had an oppressive atmosphere that really got across the idea that you were in a remote place with everyone out to get you. The way the game displayed one room at a time on screen (kind of like Xenophobe) had me always worrying what was around the corner. When I did run into an Asteroid Belt Policeman (ABP), the encounters were quick and deadly. There was never a point in the game where I didn’t feel like it was a race against the clock to find the evidence I needed before the bad guys caught up with me.

When I think of games that really nailed a sense of atmosphere, I would put Brataccas in the same group as Out of this World and Flashback. There is a feeling to those games that is rarely captured even in today’s era. In fact, I think the original Dead Space is the only one of the past several years that gave me that sort of experience.

The video below gives a great overview of the game, and if you want to see the actuall manual from back in the day, head over to the site dedicated to Brattacas.

Maybe in the wake of Sony Liverpool’s closure, Psygnosis will someday live again. I wish all the people affected by the closure the best of luck.

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The New Polygon Trailer Makes Me Sad

Twitter pretty much exploded this week when the folks behind the new Polygon gaming site launched a trailer for a documentary they’re taking part in. The series is supposed to chronicle how this group of forward thinking video game journalists have joined forces to create a new type of site and a new angle to cover video games from. Watching the trailer though, I couldn’t help but feel that this group of people is a shining example of what is wrong with video game journalism today.

Personally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as video game journalism. I prefer the term “enthusiast press.” People who get paid to write about games are, in most cases, people who play a lot of video games and spend a great deal of time discussing them, because they are passionate about their hobby (or at least they started that way). They may be good writers, and they may have some interesting things to say about games that other gamers enjoy reading and hearing about. For many of us, being able to write about games and get paid for it would be a dream come true.

I was lucky enough to be a member of the enthusiast press for a couple of years, and it was a great experience. But as cool as it was to gain early access to games, or get free review copies, or attend press events, I never once forgot my place in the grand scheme of things. I was the guy talking about something that someone else had made. And I really think that’s a perspective that a lot of people in the enthusiast press have lost sight of in the current era of game coverage. For many, it has become more about them than the games they are covering. It’s about them as a writer, or their unique “take” on something. It’s become about proving how superior they are because they can point out the technical flaws in a game, or how the writing is sub par, or whatever. It’s become more about building oneself into a personality as a game “journalist” than about covering the games themselves.

And as someone who loves games, I hate how the state of game coverage has changed the way we all talk about the hobby we supposedly love. And I’m ashamed of the way the gaming community treats the people who make game for us. People who spend years of their life toiling away on a project, only to hear about how their level design sucked, or how “texture pop-in” somehow ruins the experience of playing their game. We have become pretentious, spoiled brats when it comes to the hobby we love, and the way video games are covered by much of the enthusiast press has perpetuated that type of discourse.

So that’s why watching the trailer from the Polygon guys pretty much made me sick to my stomach. I wonder what people who are working their tails off making games right now thought about that, and about the current state of game coverage in general. I feel sorry for them.

I love games, and even the most technically flawed, story-challenged games still have something awesome to offer. There was a time when most games were technically flawed and had not story whatsoever. They’re the games I grew up playing, and they are the main reason I still love games today. It would be nice to see a group of the enthusiast press get together and create a site that focused on what’s great about games, and covered games that weren’t AAA titles, and found the great things about bad games and wrote about why those experiences are worth having. The closest thing I can find to that now is the current 1Up, but I fear for how long they’ll be able to keep their current direction without either getting swallowed up or being forced to conform.

In what I think is quite an ironic twist, the cynical, dismissive gaming community that the enthusiast press has helped create is the same one that is lashing back against the Polygon trailer right now. Here is one example:

Garnett Lee of Shacknews (formerly of 1Up), perhaps put it best in his Twitter response to the trailer: “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s about the games, their art, their creators, their passion. Exactly what we’ve all been struggling to better portray.”

Maybe at some point we can go back to enjoying games and talking about the things we love. And if I’m wrong, and Polygon turns out to be a celebration of all that is great about games large and small, then I apologize to the people behind the site .Everybody makes mistakes. I hope that’s all the Polygon trailer was.

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3DS XL First Impressions: It’s Awesome

Even though I hadn’t really planned on it, I ended up grabbing a Nintendo 3DS XL when they went on sale yesterday. GameStop was offering $100 toward the XL if you traded in your old 3DS, and combined with some other games I traded in, I got the new XL for a mere $11. Turns out it was worth $11 and then some.

I bought an original 3DS on launch day, and I haven’t played nearly enough to justify my $250 investment. My biggest complaint wasn’t the lack of games after launch, but rather the form factor of the device itself. The 3DS was just too darn small, and playing it for any length of time actually made my hands hurt. Over the past several months, there’s been some great games for the 3DS that I haven’t even bothered to pick up. I have a ton of old NES and GameBoy games on the device from the Ambassador Program and my eShop purchases, but I rarely fired up the handheld to play them. Ironically, the game I spent the most time with was Resident Evil Revelations (an awesome game), partly because the added bulk of the Circle Pad Pro made the device more comfortable to hold.

My first thought in taking my new 3DS XL out of the box was that it was exactly what the original design for the device should have been. Not only is the display substantially larger than the original, but the device feels a lot more comfortable to hold and play. I fired up Super Mario 3D Land and was really impressed with how much better of an experience it was playing on the XL versus the original 3DS. Even the 3D comes across better. Reading web pages on the built in browser (not that you’d actually spend much time doing it) is actually reasonable now. I could actually see myself using Netflix on the device now, something I did one time on the old model.

So, while I haven’t spent too much time with it yet, I am really liking the 3DS XL so far. I don’t know if the GameStop deal was a one-day thing, but if it’s still going on, I think it’s worth trading in your old model for this one. I know I’ll get a lot more playing time out of the 3DS moving forward.

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My Long Road to Finishing inFamous (Part 1 of 2)–The Third Time’s the Charm

So, I finally finished inFamous, and I really enjoyed it. It only took me three years.

Of all the games in my pile of Shame, inFamous was at the top. I have an attachment to the game because it was one of first big games I covered for Comic Book Resources back in the day. I got to meet some of the devs and spend some time with an early version of the game at a Sony event. I even interviewed Director Nate Fox about the game for CBR (which you can read here). Needless to say, I was excited to finally get my hands on the finished version when it released in 2009.

When I actually started play however, the game just didn’t click with me. At the time, my favorite game of the generation so far was Crackdown, and I kind of expected inFamous to be similar to it (the open world, super powers, shard collection, etc). But the game felt very different mechanically, and I couldn’t stop comparing the two. When the story didn’t grab me right away, and the mechanics didn’t click with me, I never got past the first five hours before trading in the game and moving on to something else.

Fast forward to mid 2011, and Sony’s infamous (pun intended) PSN outage. As an apology for the PSN hack and subsequent outage, Sony offered inFamous as one of the “Welcome Back” gifts for returning PSN subscribers. I downloaded the game, fired up my old save, and jumped back in. This time around, the mechanics did click with me, and I was far enough removed from Crackdown that I could enjoy inFamous without constantly comparing it to my other experience. I put another five hours or so into the game, and made some good progress before getting distracted by other games and leaving inFamous again.

Fast forward to June of this year, and Sony’s E3 press conference. Part of the conference was a rebranding of sorts for PlayStation Plus, which was being molded into more of a subscription game service, with users getting access to a selection games for free each month. To kick things off, Sony offered free access to a dozen titles, one of which was inFamous 2.

Feeling that I couldn’t possibly start inFamous 2 without finishing the first game, I dove back into inFamous, determined to finish it this time. Lo and behold, not only did I finally finish the game, but I really enjoyed my time with it. The power leveling system is great, and as I got closer to the end of the game, I had really customized my version of Cole (the game’s protagonist) to fit my playstyle. I’m more of a ranged attack guy, who likes to swoop in and finish enemies off after softening them from afar, and that style is totally supported by the game. I ended up enjoying the comic-y story as well, even though it took some big leaps of logic toward the end of the game. The entire story is a huge setup for a sequel, and I believe the events of inFamous 2 pick up almost immediately after the first game. All in all, lots of fun, and I’m glad I took the time to finish it.

Finally completing inFamous got me to thinking a lot about how I approach games in general and how rarely I actually finish them. I’ll talk about that more in my next post.

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Darksiders, and the Love of a Good Mashup

Some of my favorite games are absolutely teeming with originality, even if they use familiar game play mechanics, environments, or themes. Take Bioshock for example: on one hand, it’s a first person shooter and “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2 (see Kieron’s brilliant take on that subject) that doesn’t require the player to actually do anything they haven’t done before in a game. On the other hand, well, if you’ve played it you know that the story, setting, combat, and moral choices combine to make for one incredibly original experience overall.

It’s not on the same level of my personal gaming pantheon as Bioshock, but the first Darksiders game is one of my favorites for a very different reason: entirely because of the success Vigil Games achieved by making one of the most wonderfully derivative games ever. The game’s structure and core mechanics? Yep, that’s Legend of Zelda. The combat? God of War lite. The story? The bible (a very loose interpretation, obviously). Heck, they even threw in a little Portal for one of the dungeons! What’s more, you don’t even need to look hard to find these sources of inspiration; hell, if THQ had offered a green tunic and cap costume as DLC for the game, Nintendo might have sued.
And yet, they pulled it off. They took all those elements of great games & stories and did two things: they executed them with polish and precision, and they combined them in a way that made something new and fresh out of the familiar. In a way, Darksiders is like a DJ Earworm end-of-year mashup that lets you recognize a whole bunch of your favorite songs as they blend together into something that stands on its own. Even more impressively, they avoid the trap that some retro homage games fall into (I’m looking at you, 3D Dot Game Heroes) of being so slavishly devoted to the original that they fail to do anything new or worthwhile.
I should also admit that part of why I love Darksiders so much is due to its status as a “mature Zelda game”. I think I’ve played almost every Zelda installment since the original, and long considered it to be one of my favorite game franchises… except that I realized some time ago that what I want more than anything is for Nintendo to radically shake up that series and do something NEW. Send Link into space. Make him and Princess Zelda fully grown adults in a relationship, not the cloying fairy tale-level romance the games usually reach for. Use the Unreal engine! (Just kidding.)
So, yeah, Darksiders is a top-notch mashup of video games that also dives into Judeo-Christian mythology in a fun way. And based on the first 5 or 6 hours of Darksiders 2, Vigil has hit the sweet spot again… only this time they’ve added a healthy dose of Prince of Persia to the mix. Oh, and Diablo. If there’s kart racing in there somewhere, I may pass out.

The Year With No New Games-Part 4: “Completion”

I wish I could say that I had been away for so long because I was fully immersed in clearing off my backlog, that my pile of shame has been leveled, and that the new games have my complete and undivided attention. But that would be a lie.

One factor I had not considered when drafting the original gaming schedule was how time consuming finishing some of them would be. Another, slightly more important factor I had not considered was how quickly I would feel burnt out on gaming in general, and achievements-oriented gaming in particular, after a few months of this project. The most important factor I had not considered was how difficult it is to balance school, work, and family, particularly raising a toddler, would be. At the end of the day, I just didn’t want to play anymore.

It turns out that once I popped (an achievement), I actually could stop.

That said, it’s the redefinition of “completion” that accelerated my burnout. Last time, I mentioned that the pursuit of 100% completion derailed this project. We normally call the act of experiencing a game’s full plot or playing a game’s last level “completion.” But there are other difficulties and other modes to conquer, other challenges (self-imposed or designed by the creators) to overcome, other collectibles to discover. And therein lies the relatively arbitrary demarcation of “100% completion,” which I defined as “all achievements earned.” And that usually means some tedious play.

 “Tedious play” is a wonderful oxymoron. How can play, which is supposed to joyous, be tedious? It’s tedious when you’re leading a coordinated group effort to enter into buildings so an achievement boosting partner can demolish it, thereby scoring demolition kills in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It’s tedious when you’re playing a particular checkpoint in Gears of War 2‘s campaign again and again so you can use the Brumak to score 100,000 kills. It’s tedious when you’re caught in a cycle of dying and respawning just so you can join Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s Mile High Club. And yet I’ll smile when I think about the moment when the Demolition Man, Seriously 2.0 and Mile High Club achievements popped.

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The Cold Stream Update for Left 4 Dead 2 Brings Team Zombie Out of Hiding

There is a group of us on XBox Live (including Co-Op Critics Dan Evans and Kim Wong) that have gamed together for the better part of five years now. We initially came together around Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, but the group really jelled with the arrival of the original Left 4 Dead in 2008. In fact, we put so much time into playing that game together, that we dubbed our gaming group ‘Team Zombie.’ To this day, whenever the call goes out over Twitter for some co-op gaming, the Team Zombie signal is shown in the sky, no matter what game we’re actually playing.

Outside of Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 though, our group doesn’t game together as much anymore. Part of the issue is shooter fatigue, which gets worse with each new iteration of CoD or Battlefield. But part of it is also that no games can quite match the Left 4 Dead series in terms of co-op fun.

So when Valve finally brought he long-awaited Cold Stream update to Xbox on July 24th, it was a pretty big deal for our little group. And since its release, Team Zombie has been back in action, having as much fun as we’ve ever had with the game.

Cold Stream is great because not only does it bring a new level to L4D2, but it brings the rest of the maps from the original game into L4D2, and they’ve all been updated. Many of the ways we used to beat the old maps are no longer possible, as the levels themselves have been tweaked. This has made all of the maps feel new again, and it’s resulted in the laugh out loud, screaming and yelling sessions that brought the group together in the first place.

So I’d like to thank Valve for Cold Stream, because it got the band back together. It was a long wait, but well worth it to be fighting for my life with Team Zombie again.