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Gaming Stories: Streets of Rage 2

Pounding electronica is playing. Enter stage left, but I’m facing right. Turn around and walk left. Pick up the hidden extra life behind the mailbox. Punk in blue jeans and blue vest approaches. Jab-jab-vertical kick. Three more punks approach. Jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. Two more punks approach from behind. Backfist. Punk with mohawk and a yellow jacket approaches. Knee press-jab-jab-Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle. The punks have now gathered into a tight group. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-back throw. Knee press-jab-jab-grapple-knee flurry 1-knee flurry 2-vault over opponent-body slam. Surrounded by punks. Dragon Wing. Go straight.

When all else fails, spam Grand Uppercut/Bare Knuckle.

That might seem like gibberish to you, but that’s how I think of the very beginning of Streets of Rage 2. When I close my eyes, I can see the first punk in blue approach. I can play out exactly how I would attack him and remember how long I had before his comrades joined him. I know the exact timing window for each attack sequence and how each enemy would react to my attacks. Don’t jump against the bald, shirtless enemies because they’ll uppercut me unless they’re holding lead pipes. Don’t get in too close against the enemies with the mohawk and the brightly colored jackets because they’ll find an opening to throw me.

Every time I play Streets of Rage 2, I react to the same sequence of enemies with the same moves. It’s like our actions are scripted for us. I walk left to pick up the hidden extra life. The first group of punks try to ambush me from the right. I turn around and hit B-B-C-B on the Genesis controller to chain jab-jab-vertical kick. I press the advantage and hit B-B-double tap right on the directional pad-B to chain jab-jab-Grand Uppercut. The second group of punks try to ambush me from the left this time. Hit C-B simultaneously to use the backfist. The punk in the yellow jacket is here, so I hit C-down-B to make Axel yell something incoherent and jump into the punk in the yellow jacket to start the combo. Time passes, but the attack sequence at the beginning of Streets of Rage 2 is eternal.

This box survived multiple moves.

In the grand 16-bit console war, I was on the Sega Genesis side. One Christmas, my parents unveiled a brand new Sega Genesis Fighting System, which had Streets of Rage 2 as the pack-in game. I delicately removed every piece from the box (for a while, I still had the exterior cardboard box, the interior Styrofoam casing, and all the twist ties and plastic bags that came in the package) and hooked it up to the TV. I would get a few other games over the years (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Columns and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine for my mother), but Streets of Rage 2 was my faithful companion for years.

There are four playable characters in Streets of Rage 2, but my memory is only attached to Axel, and it’s probably for an almost trivial reason: the first player’s selection defaults to Axel in the character selection screen.

There are multiple ports of Streets of Rage 2, but my muscle memory needs the original three-button Genesis gamepad to realize its full potential. The round directional pad would click in just right, and the B-button was ground into just the right groove from my presses. I’ve tried the XBLA version and the version included in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, but they don’t feel right to me. Maybe it’s controller latency or how the directional pad on the Xbox 360 controller feels. Or maybe my muscle memory is so strongly tied to the Genesis controller that my hands refuse to recognize any other way of interacting with Streets of Rage 2.

One final thought: Streets of Rage 2 rules, Final Fight drools. Only one of the two games allows the player to build combos like the ones I described above, and it’s not the game by Capcom.

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Gaming Stories: Halo 3

We all have anecdotes about our games, and the power of single-player video games lies in the games’ ability to bind us with shared moments. If I know that you’ve also played Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I can reasonably assume that you too faced the disappointing final boss in an empty and anti-climactic mansion. It’s a common touchpoint, and communities are built on sharing our experiences.

So, from now until the end of the year, I’m going to try to share one of my gaming stories a day. The goal is not to recap the game’s events but to tell my story of that moment, almost like building my personal gaming memoir.  
Since Halo 4 was released last week, let’s revisit my favorite moment from Halo 3, which I’ve titled “The Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom.”

For as large the scope of the Halo series has been, it’s a surprisingly solitary experience. Humanity is losing an intergalactic war, but the chapter “The Covenant” in Halo 3 was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a great war. The fiction places the Master Chief as a monumental figure, the demon of death feared by humanity’s enemies, but he is usually a solitary operator in the field. The space battle taking place above Earth outside Cairo Station at the beginning of Halo 2 was nice to observe, but ships blowing up in the distance didn’t convey to me the feeling of being part of something grander. So, when cutscene that opened “The Covenant” showed seven dropships in formation ready to conduct a coordinated strike on enemy bases, I sensed that this chapter would be different. 
Once the combat started, however, the game’s scope narrowed again. With our forces divided to hit the enemy in three simultaneous blows, I was alone to face the opposition in my tower. I remained alone even when I flew over to another tower to rectify the botched mission there.
Once the three towers were under friendly control, and I boarded a Scorpion tank in silence. As part of the metagame between the developers and the player, I knew that I would not have been given control of a tank unless I was going to face a challenge that required it. We moved from a vibrant and sunny shore through a tunnel to snowy mountains that were lit by a weak sun. The lonely piano at the beginning of “One Final Effort” is almost wistful, one set of notes repeating the other in a different octave, and I saw the snowy plain where the battle would take place. The strings have joined the piano, but I’ve lost a passenger on my Scorpion tank. The strings are have become more energetic, and I’m struggling to navigate the snowy cliffs in my unwieldy tank while fighting a combination of enemy Ghosts, Wraiths, Prowlers, and turrets. 
“Hornets in-bound!”
Even the piano had picked up the pace by now to join the strings’ energy. A Scorpion tank and Hornets? Something wasn’t right. We used the Hornet earlier in the chapter to escort a dropship and engaged in dogfights against Banshees, but we’ve been on the ground since then. The passengers on my tank have all perished, and the tank itself is on fire.  
Two Scarabs! Repeat, two Scarabs!

“I count two Scarabs. Repeat, two Scarabs!”

Well, now I knew why the developers have given me all this firepower. 
The air started swarming with Hornets and Banshees, joined by the pounding music. I had to choose how to solve this combat puzzle. We had taken out a Scarab in Halo 2 on foot and a Scarab earlier in Halo 3‘s chapter, “The Storm,” on a Mongoose. Should I use the Scorpion or the Gauss Warthog to knock the Scarab down so I can board it to destroy it? Should I just use the Scorpion’s cannon to fire directly on the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction? I could, but enemy Ghosts scampered to and fro, almost vibrating in their enthusiasm to stop me. Should I use the Hornet to destroy the Scarabs from the air? I could, but enemy Banshees vied with friendly Hornets and a friendly Pelican dropship for air superiority. 
I made my choice. I would take to the skies. I weaved in between enemy fire, and I was methodical in my assault. I destroyed the enemy Banshees. I wrecked the Scarabs’ main guns and bombarded the troops who dared to show themselves on the Scarabs’ decks. I stripped the Scarabs’ of their armor. And then I directed those rockets into the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction. I had felt like the god of death and destruction that the Covenant’s Grunts ran in fear from before, but this was on a greater scale than ever before. The music swelled, the Scarabs’ engines finally went critical, and there was a satisfying “Boom.” 
“Both Scarabs down. Well done.”
Thanks, Cortana. I like to take pride in my work.
“Kill the stragglers.”
Oh. That’s a bit bloodthirsty of you, but what’s a few aliens more? The music is positively triumphant, almost inspirational, as I did what Cortana asked.
“Calamity! If we only had more time.” 
As I crossed the bridge to my next mission objective, the strings faded away to one sustained note, and the melancholy piano returned. I agreed with 343 Guilty Spark. That was the series’s finest moment, the perfect melding of music and player control in a combat puzzle, and this was the closest the Halo games came to matching the scope that it tried to present. This near perfect moment was all too brief, and replaying the section would be nothing more than chasing that high to diminishing returns. I secured that memory and moved on to slay some more aliens.
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Force Test–Part 0: Ready for Launch

I’ve been waiting for this.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) Lead Designer Damion Schubert announced in a dev blog the other day that SWTOR will be free to play as of mid-November.

I wrote a post on my own blog a while back when Bioware was considering transitioning Star Wars: The Old Republic to a free-to-play (F2P) model and how it was an inevitability. Subscription-based MMOs are no longer a long-term business model.

In my mind, there are basically two models that have risen from the ashes of the old: (1) Free-to-play at launch; and (2) Early adopter subscription-driven with a transition to free-to-play. Both are supported by getting some users to pay for additional content or features. Some, like Guild Wars, offer expansions for additional cost, while many others offer microtransactions for additional content, character slots, short-term bonuses, etc.

SWTOR falls into that second category. For the better part of a year, SWTOR has cashed in on hardcore MMO and Star Wars fans that felt compelled to play the game when it first launched. Once that surge of income began to dry up, the move to F2P was on. As many other MMOs have proven over the past few years (D&D Online, DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online), the F2P model can be very successful if implemented properly.

When I was working for CBR, I had a few conversations with the DC Universe Online devs prior to that game launching, and it was clear to me they knew the game would eventually go free-to-play. At the time, I didn’t understand why they would even try a subscription-based model in the first place, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. In the short-term, there is a lot of money to be made from the early adopters. In fact, publishers can almost use that subscription-based period as another beta test while they ready their F2P model. They can see the game in action, and figure out where microtransactions would best fit in based on how people play the game, how long average sessions last, etc.

I firmly believe that this was the plan for SWTOR all along. The only thing that Bioware and EA didn’t foresee is that they would need to make the switch to F2P this quickly. The game launched in December of last year, and I bet they figured they’d get two years out of the subscription-based model before needing to switch over. In comparison, both DDO (2006) and LOTRO (2007) lasted about 3.5 years apiece before switching, while DC Universe Online (2011) and SWTOR (2011) lasted less than one year. What that tells me is that even early adopters are balking at the idea of a subscription-based model, and F2P will soon become the primary model for all MMOs moving forward (some might argue it has already).

So given that the switch to F2P has come a little early for the folks behind SWTOR, it will be interesting to see how their version of a free-to-play model is implemented. Already, there seem to be some odd choices in terms of restrictions (F2P players not being able to equip rarer weapons and items, limited number of PvP events per week), but at least it looks like all classes and experience levels will be accessible from the get go.

I will be diving into Star Wars: The Old Republic when it goes F2P, and in the Force Test series of posts, I’ll be writing about my experience with the game and my thoughts on how the F2P model has been implemented.

Stay tuned!

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‘Forward Unto Dawn’ Brought Me Back to Halo

As I write this, it’s Halo 4 launch day, and I just picked up my copy of the game. Two days ago however, I hadn’t even planned on picking up Halo 4 at launch, as I was only planning on picking up one shooter this holiday season, and had made the decision that I’d be getting Call of Duty: Black Ops II instead.

But a funny thing happened over the past couple of days–I came to realize that the Halo franchise is really the only first-person shooter series I’ve been consistently interested in this console generation (and the one prior). Watching the excellent Forward Unto Dawn web series drove home that realization, and after watching the first couple episodes, I preordered the game in the eleventh hour.

When I say that I’ve been consistently interested in the franchise, what I mean is that I’ve played all of the Halo games, and I’ve completed the campaigns in each one. As I thought about it, I realized that the Halo series is the only FPS series that I have completed all of the campaigns in. In Call of Duty, the last campaign I finished was World at War. For Resistance, I didn’t even play the third game. Same for Gears of War. But the combination of story and setting in the Halo games kept me interested in the universe enough to complete all of the games, and it’s what’s brought me back for the latest installment.

I realize that for a lot of people, this is the opposite of why they play Halo. For many, it’s the multiplayer component that brings them back each time. And while multiplayer has always been executed very well in the Halo series, I’ve never been a big fan of it (probably because I’m not very good at it). I usually a handful of hours with the multiplayer of each game, and then move on to other shooters I fare better at. The last time I played a Halo game, it was the multiplayer mode for Reach, and my apathy for that part of the game is why I wasn’t overly excited about Halo 4. So much of the media coverage dedicated to the game is focused on multiplayer, that it’s easy to forget about the campaign.

But the campaigns have always been great in my mind (even Halo 2), and Reach’s was fantastic. The last moments of that campaign provided one of the most emotionally powerful experiences that I’ve ever had in a game. Seeing Forward unto Dawn made me realize that I am excited about the return of Master Chief, and I want to learn more about the Forerunners, and what happens to Cortana’s sanity as the end of her life draws closer.

My interest in Halo over other shooters makes sense to me when I think about my gaming preferences as a whole. I’m an RPG nerd–I need a world I can get immersed in. Story, setting and characters trump gameplay for me. When compared to other shooter series, there’s a lot more to explore in the Halo universe.

So, while Forward Unto Dawn was primarily designed to introduce new players to the series, it has served to bring me back and remind me why I became of fan of the universe in the first place.

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The Year With No New Games-Part 8: The New Game Masters

I am a child of the 1980s and 1990s, the heady days when there would still be cartoons on our local Fox affiliate (WNYW-NY), the independent channel (WPIX-NY), and the unaffiliated channel (WWOR-TV) during the ungodly early weekday hours, weekday afternoons after school, Saturday mornings, and early Sunday mornings. These included Captain N: The Game Master on NBC, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, and eventually more questionable shows like Double Dragon and Mutant League. During the weekend, after the cartoons finished, there would be live action shows like WMAC Masters (which I rediscovered through a Google search for “martial arts tournament fake”). There was one show that I dimly remembered until a multi-pronged Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube search unearthed it and triggered warm memories of admiration and jealousy. It was Video Power, and the show I remember was apparently the show’s second incarnation, but what could be more memorable to a child than a game show where kids competed against each other in video game score attacks and video game trivia quizzes?

At the end of each Video Power, the winner would have a chance to run a prize gauntlet to attach as many games to his or her head and torso as could remaining attached through Velcro. This was the climax of the show, the apotheosis of these gaming idols. I was fascinated by each player’s run and broke them down in my imagination to find strategies for balancing time, the unreliability of the Velcro, and the critical path through the maze to come out with as many games as possible.

This was before the Evo Championship Series, before I discovered Twin Galaxies through The King of Kong, before I found out about the Nintendo World Championships, and definitely before speed-running games was a filmed and shared experience. I didn’t see The Wizard until long after Video Power‘s run ended, so the children I saw on Video Power were my childhood standard-bearers for gaming prowess. They had unlocked the games’ secrets. Maybe they discovered them through the Worlds of Power tie-in novels, so I read them, indirectly inspiring a lifelong love of books. (I know I keep looking for gaming tips in Neal Stephenson’s novels.) Maybe they consulted the tomes of cheats and hints, like Tricks of the Nintendo Masters, which always had the worst cover designs. While I could try to match the show’s scores on Super Mario Bros., I just didn’t have access to games like Double Dragon III: The Gem Masters, Mega Man, or Super Glove Ball.

Since then, I’ve learned about things like critical path method for project management and how that applies to high level video game speed-running, counter-intuitive methods to enemy encounters in single player games like letting them hit you so you can exploit the invincibility flicker, and the meta-game that goes on behind competitive multiplayer games. I’ve become an adult, so I don’t hold people who are great at games with the same adulation that I did as a child. And gaming expertise has seemingly fragmented. For example, while winners of the Evo Championship Series may compete in a number of games (Justin Wong, most famous for dominating Evo for years and for the single greatest counter series in Evo history, for instance, competed in Evo 2009 in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter III: Third Strike), the games will often share a system (which is why players like Justin Wong may stick to only Capcom fighting games in competitions and not compete in other two-dimensional games with different systems and timing like Mortal Kombat, much less three-dimensional games like Tekken or Soulcalibur). It makes sense; become a jack of all trades and risk also becoming a master of none or concentrate on a few games that are similar so skills can transfer from one to another.

In a way, the spirit of mastery of all games has diminished since the Video Power and Nintendo World Championship Series days, when players had to be ready to compete in a variety of games with different systems. The spirit is kept alive at the Penny Arcade Expo’s Omegathon, but I contend that the spirit is also kept alive by those who are derisively called “achievement whores.”

Consider Ray Cox, also known as “Stallion83,” the current Guinness World Record holder for highest gamerscore, who is on a quest to reach 1 million gamerscore points. According to his profile on TrueAchievements.com, he’s played 1,254 total games, ranging from Kinectimals to Ratatouille to Too Human. He’s achieved nearly 82% of all possible achievements, including the DLC that he owns for the games that he’s played, of these 1,254 games. By necessity, he’s had to plays games in all the genres currently available on the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone and acquire as many of the achievements in them as quickly as possible.

Cox, by the nature of his quest, is an extreme outlier example, but his peers all have had to dip into a variety of genres in order to accrue their gamerscore. To me, Cox and his peers carry the spirit of masterful play, adaptability, and comfort with any number of systems that I believe is in the spirit of Video Power and Nintendo World Championship Series players. One might sneer at their quest or treat achievements and gamerscore as Microsoft’s cynical attempts to hook players into the Xbox 360’s ecosystem. One might even question how achievements and gamerscore are negatively affecting game development. But I appreciate the spirit of what they do. They strive for mastery, for finding the most efficient ways to deconstruct a game to its core components, and then they move on. They are, to me, the new game masters.

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StreetPass Has Made Me Fall in Love With My 3DS All Over Again

As much as I love my 3DS, I had rarely used one of its major features since I purchased the handheld at launch. After taking my 3DS to New York Comic Con this past weekend however, I am now completely addicted to StreetPass.

For those unfamiliar, StreetPass is a passive wifi feature that communicates with other 3DS consoles when you are in range of them. As long as your 3DS is on (even in sleep mode), whenever you pass another 3DS, that person’s Mii will show up in your Mii Plaza. You get a greeting from the Mii, and you also can see what the most recent game a person played was. More importantly though, you can play mini games with the other Miis, as well as collect gifts and unlock content in 3DS games like Resident Evil: Revelations and Super Mario 3D Land. For example, in Super Mario 3D Land, other players leave gifts for you in the form of power-ups and Star Coins, which you need to unlock later levels in the game.

Built into Mii Plaza software itself is a game called Find Mii. It’s an rpg-like game where your Mii is being held captive in a tower, and the Miis you meet act as hired heroes that must battle their way through the tower to save you. They face off against ghosts and demons in turn-based combat, and can use spells and weapons to attack their enemies. After clearing certain areas, you unlock treasure chests which contain new hats for your Mii to wear.

Also in Mii Plaza is Puzzle Swap, sort of a jigsaw puzzle game where you try to assemble pictures of 3DS games and characters by trading pieces with other Miis. When you complete a picture, you’re able to view a live version of it in 3D. It’s not really a game, but it is fun getting new pieces and unlocking new screens from different Nintendo franchises.

Both of these games require meeting a lot of new Miis, and that’s why I hadn’t really gotten into them before. I had about 5 StreetPass connections on my 3DS before bringing it to New York Comic Con. Over the course of the weekend though, I met over 170 new players! Not only did I make it all the way through the Find Mii game (it took 166 characters to fight all the way through), but I completed several screens in Puzzle Swap as well.

Now, I’m taking the 3DS everywhere I go. You can play through Find Mii several times to unlock new hats from various Nintendo franchises, and I still have plenty of screens to unlock, in Puzzle Swap. What’s even cooler though, is that my Mii Plaza is filled with almost 200 people I’ve StreetPassed with during my time in NY. There’s almost a Pokemon-esque quality to the StreetPass feature, as I find myself wanting to collect as many Miis as I can.

StreetPass is a great feature that just adds to overall great experience of the 3DS. With all the games coming out over the next few months, as well as the recent release of the 3DS XL (which I have), there’s never been a better time to own a 3DS.

Here’s me in the food court of the Javits StreetPassing the living daylights out of people:

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Let the (PC) Games Begin!

Due to a recent meltdown of my current laptop, and a very good sale that Dell was having at the time, I am the proud owner of a new XPS 15. This new laptop is much more equipped for gaming than my previous one, and I am chomping at the bit to dive into some of the great games out there for PC right now. The problem is, there’s so much out there, I’m having a tough time deciding where to go first.

One thing I do know is that I’ll be picking up Guild Wars 2, as it’s a game I’ve had my eye on for quite some time. I’m an RPG nerd, and I love the idea of an MMO, but not the idea of subscription fees. I’ve enjoyed DC Universe Online on the PS3, and Guild Wars 2 has gotten rave reviews so far, so that’s a must buy for me. I also plan on getting into Star Wars: The Old Republic when it switches over to F2P.

Outside of MMOs though, I have no idea where I want to go. I’d love to learn how to play shooters with a mouse and keyboard, so I think I may dive into some Team Fortress 2, since that’s free and much more forgiving than some of the more hardcore shooters, which will give me a chance to hone my skills.

I’m very interested in playing some horror games, like Amnesia, or the Penumbra series. I’ve also heard some good things about Anna.

Right now, the possibilities are endless, and that’s really exciting. if people have suggestions as to what games I should be checking out, I’m all ears. in the meantime, I’ll be posting about whatever I’m playing.

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NYCC 2012–Quick Impressions From the Nintendo Booth

There was a significant gaming presence at this year’s New York Comic Con, and no booth was as packed as the Nintendo booth during all four days of the show. Even with a press pass, I was only able to get hands on with two games, but both were great. Here’s a quick rundown:

WiiU–Nintendoland (Luigi’s Ghost Mansion)
In the Luigi’s Ghost Mansion game, there were five of us playing together. Four were using Wii controllers, turned sideways like the old NES controllers. The fifth person was using the WiiU GamePad. The four of us on Wii controllers were Miis dressed as characters from the Mario universe (Mario, Luigi, Wario and Waluigi). The person on the GamePad was a ghost, whose objective was to incapacitate the four of us. The ghost can see the entire level and all the other characters on the GamePad’s touch screen, while the other four players can’t see the ghost on the main screen. Players are armed with a flashlight that has a limited battery, and they can only see the ghost when they catch it in the flashlight’s beam. Catching the ghost in your beam for a certain period will destroy it, until it respawns. If a player is incapacitated, they can be revived by another player. The goal is to outlast the ghost for five minutes.

I had a blast with this game, and so did the rest of the people playing–it was couch co-op at its best. The mechanics are very simple, but the tension of not being able to see the ghost makes for a panic-filled moment to moment experience. This is a fun one for kids and adults alike.

3DS–Epic Mickey 2: Power of Illusion
If you have fond memories of the Sega Genesis-era Illusion games, be prepared to love this game. A side-scrolling platformer, Power of Illusion also uses the touch screen to affect environments by tracing, painting and erasing objects that Mickey runs into. I played this one for a solid twenty minutes, and loved everything about it. The mechanics are great, and the use of the touch screen fits perfectly into the flow of the game. In addition to the standard jump and shoot mechanics (mickey use the paintbrush like a gun, shooting blotches at enemies), there is another level of depth to the mechanics, ranging from spin attacks to bounce attacks and more. All of the mechanics are introduced and explained well, and the game is just a joy to play overall.

It seems like the WiiU version of Epic Mickey 2 will be more co-op based, so if you’re looking for a pure platformer that captures the feel of the old Disney games, the 3DS version is the one to go with. It’s a definite buy for me.

Sadly, I did not get to play ZombiU, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Despite there being more than one kiosk set up for the game, there was a sea of people packed around each one all weekend. In a surreal moment, I was interviewing the game’s writer Antony Johnston, while right over his shoulder there were scores of people clamoring for a chance to play the game. From everything I saw and spoke with Antony about, this game is the real deal–survival horror that does not cater to the casual game or the faint of heart. ZombiU is shaping up to be the killer app for the WiiU launch.

Don’t sleep on Nintendoland, though. That game looks much deeper than people are giving it credit for, and I think that old school Nintendo fans will be surprised how much love and detail went into bringing beloved franchises together into one big package. Nintendoland is no mere tech demo, and it’s much bigger than Wii Sports.

Stay tuned to Secret Identity in the coming weeks for my interview with Antony Johnston about ZombiU. For 3DS fans, I will also have an interview with D3 about the Adventure Time game coming soon as well.

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The Year With No New Games-Part 7: “You are still a good person.”

[ANOTHER SPOILER WARNING NOW FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE. We’ll be dealing with the game’s themes and philosophy, which will require detailed discussions of what happens in the game. I urge again that you play Spec Ops: The Line.]


For weeks after I finished playing Spec Ops: The Line, I would scribble down snippets of thoughts about the game that I would explore at a later date. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t complete the game on “FUBAR,” which prevented me from claiming 100% completion and mentally archiving the game. Let’s take a moment to examine some of my takeaways from the game, some parts of the game where execution didn’t meet intent, and the concepts explored in the game that I’d like to see explored further. 


I. David Hume Would Be Proud

The fundamental idea behind David Hume’s explorations of epistemology is the problem of how people make inductive inferences, or extending conclusions made from observed behavior of objects to their behavior when they are unobserved. In short, his work critiqued the tendency to assume that just because we have seen a ball fall to the earth when dropped, the ball will always fall to the earth when dropped. One of the building blocks our mind uses to make these inductive inferences is continuity in time and space, or how we link thoughts of disparate events to other events that happened at the same time. Extending it further, the mind associates events that were experienced at around the same time or ideas that seem similar.
This is how my brain came to tie Spec Ops: The Line to Silent Hill 2 and The Dark Tower series of books.
While I was playing Spec Ops: The Line, I was also revisiting Silent Hill 2 through a video Let’s Play and re-reading The Dark Tower. This proximity of contact blended them all into one associated idea.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR SILENT HILL 2 AND THE DARK TOWER SERIES IN THE PARAGRAPH BELOW.]
At the end of Spec Ops: The Line, the player is presented with a choice. I could have chosen on my avatar’s behalf to commit suicide because of the weight of my actions was unbearable or to deny reality, kill the nagging voice in my head, and ask to be rescued by the US Army. Once I requested evacuation, I have one more choice to make. In one possible ending to Spec Ops: The Line, the player’s avatar, Delta Force operative Captain Martin Walker, and I could choose to surrender peacefully or to kill the soldiers sent to save me and wander back into Dubai ready to repeat the cycle. That image of walking back into the hell of our creation to repeat the cycle reminded me of what Roland found at the top of the Dark Tower. Once Roland’s journey reached its end, he was stripped of his belongings and lessons and sent back into the desert to chase the man in black. His only hope is that he’ll one day learn the right lessons during a cycle so he can escape it. At the end of The Dark Tower, Roland and the reader are told that perhaps the next journey may end differently. For the player of Spec Ops: The Line, we can try to play again (perhaps even on “FUBAR”), and we can choose to end the game differently. 
Of course, the hell that we created in Dubai is, as the game points out in loading screens, all our fault. We chose to continue to play after we burned those civilians with white phosphorus. We chose to reload and respawn if we fall. We chose to pull the trigger to kill those soldiers who opposed us. At one point, Walker and I encountered an armored heavy assault soldier who bore the likeness of Sergeant John Lugo, One of Walker’s squadmates who perished in our quest for redemption. I was too stunned to shoot back, so I was felled by the enemy’s bullets only to respawn to realize that it was a hallucination. In the next attempt, a regular armored heavy assault soldier appeared. This time, I had no problems gunning him down. 
If you’ve played Silent Hill 2, you may remember Laura, the eight-year-old girl who sees no monsters in Silent Hill because she is innocent. When I first played Silent Hill 2, the realization that James Sunderland only saw monsters in Silent Hill because he was not innocent and that the monsters that he saw reflected reflected his sins shook me. To think that these were all hallucinations of a guilt-wracked mind made James an unreliable narrator deepened Silent Hill 2 much as Walker’s hallucination of the armored heavy assault soldier deepened Spec Ops: The Line‘s exploration of Walker’s post-traumatic stress syndrome. 
[END SPOILER WARNING FOR SILENT HILL 2 AND THE DARK TOWER SERIES.]
II. Moral force at the end of a barrel
I can think of no single player narrative that places the player in the position of wrong or evil party. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I played as the American or British soldiers, never the insurgent or terrorist. In Gears of War 3, outside of the downloadable “RAAM’s Shadow” campaign, I played as Marcus Fenix and his group of loyal, strong, heroic soldiers, never the invading Locust or the parasitic Lambent Locust. Even games like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord, I’m either rightfully resisting invasion or I’m secretly the force of good (or at least less evil) than my antagonist. So, it’s only in multiplayer modes of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War 3 where I can assume the role of the other, the enemy, and it’s only there where I’m ostensibly on equal footing with the heroic protagonist. 
Video games have consistently taught us that might makes right. I am a COG in Gears of War 3, so I am right to mow down the Locust, who are trying to escape from an infection for which COG were possibly responsible. I am an American soldier in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, so I am right to kill faceless, nameless people re-classified as enemy combatants who may only resist what they believe to be needless and senseless violation of their block/neighborhood/country. 
Spec Ops: The Line confronts the idea in video games that the player derives moral force through violence and condemns it primarily through my massacre of civilians. But it also forces the player to reflect on this through smaller but no less dramatic scenes that I mentioned last time. The game, through Walker, lectures the player about how I am only a passive observer while the soldiers do the real work. But what work are we really seeing them do? I can try to save a CIA operative instead of three civilians, but he dies anyway, so it was ultimately pointless. I can try to save a civilian, but he was killed in the crossfire between my soldiers and the enemies. I can try to ally myself with a CIA-led insurgency, but I ended up dooming anyone left alive to death by dehydration. I can reach the top of my personal dark tower, but I just found that I was the villain all along. 
The game’s dialogue with the player extends to something that we, by inductive reasoning, assume to be useless. Just because most loading screens offer useless advice doesn’t mean that all loading screens can be safely ignored. As I progressed through the game, the game began to communicate with me through messages in the loading screens.
At at first the game condemned me: 
-“This is all your fault.” 
-“Can you even remember why you came here?” 
-“Do you feel like a hero yet?” 
-“If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here.”.
Then, the game tried to provoke me to think:
-“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” 
-“Cognitive dissonance is a feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously.”
-“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
-“The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why would you care?”
Finally, the game tried to console me:
-“You are still a good person.”
As I did in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I killed countless enemies in Spec Ops: The Line. Not only was I a survivor, but I was the victor. I was the unstoppable force capable of feats that no other character in the game could achieve. (That is I appreciated the Grunts’ exclamations when I was spotted in Halo 3: I had become, in their minds, more than just an enemy soldier. I was a force of nature, a god who was able to deal death to them and resurrect. And that is why I appreciated the enemies’ panicked shouts when my squadmates or I were spotted in Spec Ops: The Line.) Because I was special and because all who opposed me fell to the wayside, there was no alternative. I was right because I was mighty. 
Through in-game events and the loading screen messages, Spec Ops: The Line forces the player to reflect on how far the idea in video games that the player, because the player’s avatar is usually the protagonist of the story, is not necessarily the hero or moral force of the story. 
III. Please Learn from This
The deterioration of Walker and his men, particularly in their chatter, needs to be copied in future games. There is no reason, in the next Gears of War game for example, that I should hear Marcus and Cole banter as though what they were doing didn’t affect them. The characters should react to what’s happening in their world as much as producers ask us to react to what we’re seeing on screen.
I hope that other producers see the reaction that Spec Ops: The Line has received as incentive to take chances. We don’t need another dumb blockbuster action shooter. We need more games to explore the wider spectrum of emotions beyond “excitement” and “fear” and to treat what we do on screen in their game worlds with gravitas. The unreliable narrator who may be reliving experiences on his deathbed might be a popular trope, but it’s not one that’s commonly used in video games. We can accept more interesting framing devices in our stories.
IV. What Could Have Been
For all the right decisions that the producers of Spec Ops: The Line made, there are some decisions that should be critiqued. 
With an unreliable narrator comes a set of problems about what can be interpreted as “real” and what should be dismissed. The game’s producers have posited that Walker may have died in the helicopter crash (which is why Walker asked out loud when we played the helicopter sequence the second time whether they had done this before) and that everything after was just Walker’s dying hallucination. But ambiguity enters the picture at that moment. Are we to interpret that everything we played was Walker’s hallucination, and that the only moment where we actually see Walker is the helicopter sequence? How seriously can we take the game’s critique of “might makes right” if that’s the case? 
Within the game’s world, we are meant to take the revelation that Konrad has been dead as a breaking point. But it also raises questions about the chain of command if Konrad and his high ranking officers are all dead. It’s possible that the conflict between the Damned 33rd and Walker’s men is the result of a misunderstanding (you fight them for the first time when you see them chase civilians in the mall by firing guns into the air, which Walker and his men interpret as intent to collect them and possibly kill them). Even so, why wouldn’t what remained of the 33rd make an effort to reach out to Walker and his men, especially when the 33rd controls the airwaves? 
There are points where the game gets in its own way. The edged weapons expert strain credulity, but the armored heavy assault soldiers (the game’s mini-bosses, though there really isn’t an end-game boss in the traditional sense) bend it to the breaking point. The fact that enemies spawn and react pretty much the same way from load to load feeds the idea that this is Walker’s deathbed hallucination, but the fact that executing enemies creates more ammo, various turret sequences and the infinite grenade launcher sequence go past cognitive dissonance to almost ludonarrative dissonance. The worst example might be the random placement of collectibles that unlock more background information about what happened to Dubai. But then that opens the door to a conspiracy in Dubai that seems ludicrous at face value.
And that brings us back to association. Conspiracy theories are comforting because they create causal associations between random events, giving order to chaos. It can’t be my fault because larger events have guided us to this moment, and I cannot be held responsible for my actions. And then game emphatically says otherwise and insists that we evaluate how responsible we are for what we do, even if it is in as harmless a form as a video game.
Assassins-Creed-Movie

Assassin’s Creed, Why Am I Just Not That Into You?

I’m trying here–really trying. Since 2007, I’ve been trying to get into the critically-acclaimed franchise that has sold almost 40 million units. I want to love Assassin’s Creed, but I don’t. And much like everyone else, I think the trailers for ACIII look amazing, and ta game set during the American Revolution is something I absolutely want to play. I just wish it wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game.

My main issue with the series has always been the controls. For a series with such richly developed worlds, intricate storylines and beautiful visuals, it surprised me that the basic mechanics are so clunky. I’ve never spent time with an Assassin’s Creed game where I did not feel like I was fighting the controls the entire time.

When I play a game like inFamous, traversing the open world feels fluid. Climbing and jumping are responsive, and if it looks like I can grab onto something or jump to a certain spot, chances are I can. Even Crackdown, a game that came out nine months before the original Assassin’s Creed, had great traversal mechanics.

But Assassin’s Creed has never felt fluid to me. Whether it’s jumping off a side of a building when I didn’t mean to, or failing to connect during combat, I rarely feel like the game is doing what I want it to, so i can never become fully immersed in the world or the storyline.

And yes, maybe the solution is that I just need to suck less at playing Assassin’s Creed games, but I don’t think that’s it. Even so, since Assassin’s Creed II recently became free for PS Plus users, I am diving back into it to try and get better. Because I am most definitely going to be playing Assassin’s Creed III. I just hope that the series takes a big leap forward in terms of mechanics, or I fear my journey into the world of ACIII will end similarly to those of the previous games–far too soon.