imagesCA467R0Q

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.

imagesCAH7U3WX

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.

images-%283%29

Reflecting on My Mass Effect Experience (Part 2 of 2)–My Commander Shepard’s Story

WARNING–I am about to get a little spoilery about the Mass Effect story, so feel free to stop reading now. In my last post, I talked about why I love the Mass Effect games, and now I want to talk a bit about the narrative I created for my character. For that, I will need to spoil some story elements from all three games.

Still here? Great. Beacuse I want to tell you the story of my Commander Aja Shepard. My Commander Shepard was a female marine who was the sole survivor of an incident that occurred on Akuze, a planet that humans were beginning to colonize when subterranean wormlike creatures called Thresher Maws attached and killed the colonists. A unit of Marines went in to investigate and suffered a similar fate, with Shepard being the only survivor. I chose this background for my character out a possible three backgrounds. I wanted a character that had been though some trauma, but had developed a mental and physical toughness that most others don’t possess. Humanity at this point is very new to the larger galactic community, and has just started to become a rising power.

In the first Mass Effect, Shepard gets accepted into a group called the Spectres, an elite group that reports directly to the Citadel Council, the UN-like ruling body of the galactic community. The first game involves Shepard investigating a rogue Spectre and uncovering a larger threat against the entire galaxy. As far as my personal narrative, I played my Shepard in the first game as a goody two-shoes, making all the “Lawful Good” (which ME calls Paragon) choices wherever I could. I focused on building my Charm skill (kind of like Charisma), so that I could talk my way out of many situations. My emphasis on diplomacy definitely affected a few key situations throughout the game, as I was able to open up dialogue options that would not be available to characters with lesser Charm skills. In addition to playing the good hero, I also developed a love interest with a alien female scientist Liara T’soni who was studying the ancient race that ties into the larger galactic threat. Of the rest of the NPCs that become potential party members, I most frequently adventured Tali’Zorah, with a female member of a nomadic race who was on her pilgrimage as a rite of passage to find information that she could bring back to people. When given the option, I partied up with my love interest and who became my closest friend, so I became close to these characters over the course of the first game.

In Mass Effect 2, the larger story takes a sharp left turn, as pretty much everything you knew from the first game changes in the first hour. For much of the game, the characters you spent time with in the first Mass Effect take a back seat to new characters and crew members you meet through the second game’s story. The gist of the plot is that Shepard has to become allies with a shady humanist organization in order to combat the coming threat to the galaxy, because they are the only ones taking the threat seriously enough. My love interest became a secondary player in this installment, but I did meet up with Tali and was able to adventure with her for a good part of the second game. While I didn’t care for the larger story and how it was handled, I was able to continue my character’s narrative, which became about losing some innocence and making hard choices that changed my character. By the end of the game, I was less lawful-good and more chaotic good, caring less about the rules and more about results.

Mass Effect 3 sees the races of the galaxy on the brink of extinction. Shepard has rallied everyone she can for an “all or nothing” final battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy, and its a battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. The decisions made over the first two games and part of the third all factor into the final battle, and the possible outcomes of that battle. The core characters that were back-burnered in Mass Effect 2 are brought back to the forefront, which I really liked, as I was able to get the band back together for one last go around. For me, the storyline with my love interest and my best friend had very satisfying conclusions, and ones that were close to what I had wanted to see.

That’s what made the finale of Mass Effect 3 so satisfying for me–I was able to complete my character’s narrative in the way I had written it in my head. The developers had given me the framework of the larger story, but early into the second game, I knew how I wanted my story to end. I wanted to fight the final battle with the people closest to me, and I wanted my character to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the galaxy. And that’s the ending I got. I didn’t want to walk away cleanly, or be carried out on the shoulders of my comrades, or be given a parade–my Shepard’s story was always going to end in her death. It was the narrative I had built up over the course of the three games, and I played the entire third game with that in mind. There were conversation options about not making it through the final battle, and I always chose them. When I had to make decisions about being the nice guy or getting the job done, I chose the latter. my Shepard didn’t have time to mess around anymore. I was Lawful Neutral at this point–I had my own personal code, and I was sticking to it. The only laws I cared about now were my own, and people could either get on board or get out of the way. And in the end, the story concluded the way I would have wanted it to. My Shepard had a hard choice to make, and she chose the harder of the two options, which meant she would sacrifice herself (and some others) in order save the galaxy. It wasn’t a happy ending, but it was the ending that my Shepard’s story deserved.

About a week ago, Bioware released an “extended cut” of the Mass Effect 3 endings, because a lot of fans complained that they were unhappy with how the game ended the first time around. The extra content did change a few details of how the final act played out, but for the most part just added some context in the form of epilogues, showing you what happened to different characters, what the state of the galaxy is post-conflict, etc. I was pretty happy with the added content, as it shone a little more light on the fate of my teammates, but I didn’t care for one of the changes, which actually reversed the deaths of a couple of characters that I felt fit well with the story the first time around.

In any case, I really enjoyed my Mass Effect 3 ending the first time around, and that’s how my Shepard’s story ended. I applaud Bioware for creating a series in which I truly feel that I have told the story of my character. Even in all of the D&D campaigns I’ve been in, I’ve rarely gotten to see the story through to the end. Playing through the Mass Effect campaign is easily one of the best roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had, and for that, I thank you, Bioware.

Mass-Effect-3-Female-Shepard-Redhead

Reflecting on My Mass Effect Experience (Part 1 of 2)–The Dungeons & Dragons Parallel


I’ve been reflecting back on the ending of Mass Effect 3 (and the trilogy as a whole) since finishing the game back in June. I couldn’t get the game out of my head for weeks afterward. More specifically, I couldn’t get the story out of my head, and I think it’s because I feel such a strong sense of ownership of the narrative that I helped create over the past five years. It’s that sense of ownership that makes me realize what a marvel the Mass Effect series is, both from a technical and a storytelling standpoint. In my personal experience, the Mass Effect series is the first series of video games that has truly managed to capture what is was like to play through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to completion. For that reason alone, the Mass Effect games are my favorite video RPGs of all time.

People like roleplaying games for a lot of different reasons, but the main reason I love them is because I love creating a narrative for my character within the framework that the person running the campaign (the DM) creates. In a good tabletop game, I am presented with the rules, the setting, the lore, and maybe even some recent events that serve as the launching pad for the campaign. I create a character within that framework, fill in some backstory, and decide which traits I am going to emphasize in order to play the character in a way that fits the narrative I’m creating for them. Over the course of the campaign, my actions have an impact on the story, and the relationships I form with other characters (both player characters and non-player characters) all contribute to my character’s overall story. While the person running the game has a larger story to tell and had a measure of control over that story and its outcome, I am creating my own character’s narrative within that larger story.

It’s the dynamic that I just described that many video game RPGs fail to really execute on. Many games allow you to create your own character, some with a lot more customizability than the Mass Effect series. But it’s the ability to let the player tell their own story while still maintaining a strong connection to the overarching narrative the most games fail at. Most are too restrictive, offering the player no real room to create their own narrative. Those games may let the player customize the look of the character, but everything else about the game is very scripted. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have games like the Elder Scrolls (which I am a huge fan of, by the way). The Elder Scrolls games feel at time to me like a D&D campaign with no one running it. They are a giant sandbox where you can create many narratives for your own character in the world, but you often feel disconnected from the story the developers set out to tell. I played through the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion twice (over 150 hours), once sticking almost strictly to the main storyline, and another time ignoring it completely. I loved the world and the myriad of things I could do within it, but the main story was never compelling enough to keep me connected to it.

Mass Effect managed to keep the balance between my story and the larger story over the course of three games. It wasn’t perfect–there were times where the game almost became too restrictive, especially in Mass Effect 2, where I really disliked how the developers handled some of the storylines. But even when I felt the games faltered, it was mostly with the larger story. I was still allowed to play my character the in a way that was consistent with the narrative I had created. That held true right through the end of the trilogy, when I was able to end my character’s story in the way I had been envisioning it since early in the second game. That made for an incredibly satisfying end to the series for me, and one of the most cherished gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

In my next post I’ll get a little spoilery, as I want to talk about the story of my Commander Shepard.

460-_6933209

Co-Op Critics Podcast: Mass Effect 3

And we’re back! We recently re-posted the discussion Dan and I had on Mass Effect 1&2, and we’re here to finish the job with a spoilerific Mass Effect 3 gabfest.

Be aware, this is absolutely a spoiler-filled discussion that delves into the endings of Mass Effect 3, as well as the recently-released “Extended Cut” DLC.

You can listen to the episode in the player on our sidebar, or you can download it here:

http://secretidentity.podomatic.com/entry/2012-07-23T03_55_32-07_00

Mass Effect 3 Trailers:
http://youtu.be/Vs7kix6_8Ks

http://youtu.be/AluTOOCVXVQ

http://youtu.be/oOVB14kUqCo

For more on the Mass Effect series, head over to www.masseffect.com.

Send comments to sipodcast@comcast.net OR leave us a voicemail at 860-698-0468. Check out www.secretidentitypodcast.com for all things Secret Identity.

ME-1-2

Back from the Dead: Co-Op Critics: Mass Effect 1&2

Almost a year to the day of our last post, we’re back–with a repeat. All kidding aside, when Dan and I first started Co-Op critics last year, we certainly intended to have more frequent episodes than the couple we’ve put out so far. However, life got in the way, and it took one of our favorite franchises ever to bring the Co-Op Critics back together.

Today we re-posted our April 2011 episode where we talked about Mass Effect 1&2. On Monday, BRAND NEW content will debut, as our episode on Mass Effect 3 will go live. We hope this is the beginning of more regular episodes (at least one very other month), but time will tell. Games we may talk about in the future include Battlefield 3, Minecraft and the upcoming cold Stream DLC for Left 4 Dead 2.

You can listen to the ME 1&2 epiosde in the player above, or download it here:

http://secretidentity.podomatic.com/entry/2012-07-20T05_21_54-07_00

Here are the show notes for this episode:

Co-Op Critics is Secret Identity’s gaming-centric podcast that takes an in-depth look at a game or series of games each episode. In this episode (origianlly posted in April 2011), Brian and Dan Evans discuss the first two installments of the Mass Effect series. Next week’s episode will focus on Mass Effect 3.

For your reference, here are some links to trailers and articles that are discussed in this episode:

Mass Effect 1 Trailer
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqJuJTIus7U&feature=related 

Brian’s Interview with Mass Effect writer Drew Kapyshyn (scroll down to the bottom of the page)
http://www.seebrianwrite.com/2012/07/rewind-2008-mass-effect-interview-with.html

Brian’s Interview with Mass Effect 2 writer Mac Walters & artist Omar Francia on the ME: Redemption comic:
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24300 

Mass Effect 2 Trailer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2O-0-fQOOs&feature=related

Mass Effect 3 Trailer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnEej1RfqTs&feature=fvwrel

For more on the Mass Effect series, head over to www.masseffect.com.

Send comments to sipodcast@comcast.net OR leave us a voicemail at 860-698-0468 . Check out www.secretidentitypodcast.com for all things Secret Identity.

FIFA 12 Proves the iPad Is a Legit Gaming Console

by Brian LeTendre

“Hardcore” gamers like to eschew claims that mobile devices, particularly Apple’s iOS devices, are legitimate gaming platforms. What a lot of gamers don’t realize though, is that developers absolutely consider these devices gaming platforms, and they are working harder than ever to create content for these platforms that will be able to stand toe to toe with other platforms that gamers consider more “hardcore.”

IGN posted a video this week of EA’s FIFA developers showing off a version of the upcoming FIFA 12 for iPad. This year’s iteration of the game will allow players to use other iOS devices (iPhones and iPod Touches) as controllers for the iPad game. The video also demonstrated how the game looked on a big screen, using the iPad’s HDMI connector.

In other words, the devs demonstrated how they can turn the iPad into a traditional console via the software they are developing. This has already been done with other games and apps on a smaller scale. But, it’s easy to imagine that if FIFA 12 will have this capability, other EA games will end up having it too.

I’m not suggestion that my iPad/iPhone combo will replace my current consoles, but when you look at how consoles are trying to incorporate some of the best parts of mobile tech, and mobile tech is starting to provide console-type experiences, the lines between the two are starting to blur. Personally, I for one can’t wait to see more games with this functionality, because it pretty much means I’ll have a portable console made up of devices that I already carry around with me on a regular basis.

And that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about what’s happening right now with iOS devices and gaming. It’s like a spy movie, where the assassin gets past event security because he’s broken down his weapon into multiple pieces and then assembles it once he’s inside.  Apple has basically snuck a new game console into iOS users homes piece by piece. First the iPod, then the iPhone, and finally the iPad. Then they bring them all together to form the console.

Crazy stuff, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming down the road.  One thing’s for sure–I’ll be buying FIFA 12 on iPad on day one.

resident-evil-mercenaries

Capcom Feeling the Heat Over RE: Mercenaires

by Brian LeTendre
Waves were made recently when Capcom revealed that the new Resident Evil: Mercenaries for the Nintendo 3DS handled game save data in a rather restrictive way. The game data saved to the cartridge can never be reset by the user.  Not only can the original purchaser never start over from scratch in terms of data, but anyone purchasing the game second hand will not be able to delete the game progress of the previous owner.

Capcom has not explained the reasoning behind their decision to not include the functionality in RE: Mercenaries, but they claim that their intention was not to negatively affect secondhand game sales.

1Up reported that GameFly is not renting the game, and that some GameStop locations will not be accepting the game for trade-in.

Capcom is pretty much being vilified in the games press right now for what is perceived as another attempt to stop consumers from being able to trade or resell their games. It’s no secret that publishers hate the used games market, primarily because they don’t directly profit from it.

So here’s my question: Why shouldn’t Capcom and other publishers try to kill the used games market? Their fears about the used games market are completely valid. Used games cost publishers sales, period. If I were running a publishing company, I would want to destroy the used market. As a publisher, I make money when people buy new games, so I want to make sure anyone who wants to play my game has to buy it new, and make me money.

I am exactly the type of consumer that publishers should worry about. I play a lot of games, and I buy at least half of them used. For every new release that I am even remotely interested in playing, I make a choice—either I will buy the game new, or I will wait and pick up a used copy in a couple of months, unless the price for a new copy drops significantly.

Just from my own buying habits, I can’t blame publishers for wanting to do something about used games. I just don’t think that killing the used market is the answer to publishers selling more new games. In my opinion, the answer is as clear as day—lower your prices. $60 for a new game is a flat out ridiculous price.  In my mind, $40 is the magic price point. I know I’d buy a lot more new games at $39.99 than at $59.99. In fact, I picked up Crysis 2 when it dropped to $39.99 new. There’s a lot of games I’d pick up at that price point.

Another possible solution that publishers have yet to embrace is a tiered pricing system for console games. Asking $60 for the next Elder Scrolls game is one thing. Asking $60 for the Green Lantern movie tie-in game is shameful. There’s no reason that there can’t be a tiered pricing system that is widely embraced by publishers. It would result in more sales for games that don’t have the resources to be a AAA experience. Put the Green Lantern game out at $25 and sell a million copies, as opposed to the 75,000 copies you’ll sell at $60.

Again, the tiered pricing answer is how I think publishers could impact the used market, but I’m sure there are other ways as well.  What I do know is that punishing the consumer in an effort to curb used games sales is not the correct answer. It just turns consumers against the publishers that are trying to get them to buy new games. Hopefully Capcom heard that message loud and clear, but only time will tell.

photo2

Hardcore No More?

by Brian LeTendre

Something strange is happening to me. Maybe I got bit by a radioactive spider, perhaps I’ve consumed too many artificial sweeteners or colored dyes–I don’t know. But something is going on, because my tastes in video games are rapidly changing, and the change is leading me to ask myself:

Am I not a hardcore gamer anymore?

Over the past four years, I have been a console-dedicated gamer of the RPG and FPS variety. Modern Warfare, Battlefield Bad Company, Left for Dead, Dragon Age, Mass Effect–these were my games of choice. I’ve spent countless hours unlocking everything from chainmail armor to red dot scopes, and for the most part, I’ve loved every minute of it.

Recently however, I’ve not found myself craving 40+ hour RPGs, or multiplayer shooters that require the dedication of a professional sports player.

Lately I’ve been getting my gaming fix with bite-sized, mobile games that feature simple mechanics and aren’t bogged down with elaborate storylines and overly detailed game worlds. These games allow me to come and go as I please, and don’t pounish me for not spending enough time with them. They’re like ‘friends with benefits,’ as opposed to a more committed relationship.

To answer my own question, of course this doesn’t mean that I’m not a hardcore gamer anymore. That’s a stupid term anyway, mostly used by gaming snobs to put themselves above someone else. In fact, this recent change in my tastes isn’t so much a radical departure, as it is a return to my roots. The games I’m enjoying now are the same types of games that I grew up with. I was an Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 kid. I grew up in arcades and roller rinks. I didn’t care about the lore behind why Mario cared so much about Princess Peach, I just wanted to break bricks and stomp on mushrooms until my limited lives ran out.

I think what’s changed is with the explosion of smartphones and tablets, that type of gaming is back in full-force. It started because of the infancy of the technology–there was only so much developers could do when they first got their hands on the tech. We’re already seeing that evolve, as many mobile developers have been able to craft much deeper experiences on those platforms–MMOs, level-based shooters and more. But the marketplace is also filled with smaller, simpler experiences that have struck a chord with mainstream consumers, and that means they are here to stay. For a gamer like me, that means I get to enjoy the renaissance, and get back in touch with my gaming roots.

I know I’ll be picking up the next Mass Effect, and I’ll probably grab at least two or three shooters this holiday season, but much of my limited gaming time will continue to be spent with smaller games that remind me of why I fell in love with the hobby in the first place.

And that’s just fine by me.