Co-Op Critics Podcast–E3 and Left 4 Dead

In this episode of Co-Op Critics, Brian and Dan discuss their takeaways from this year’s E3, and profess their love for the Left 4 Dead series.

You can either listen to the episode here on the embedded player to the right, or download it here.

You can follow Brian on Twitter (twitter.com/seebrianwrite) and check out his blog at www.seebrianwrite.com.

Dan Evans can be found on Twitter (twitter.com/sk8j)

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, and come back to www.co-opcritics.com for more gaming discussion!


The Last of Us–Combat Takes Away From a Great Story

I recently raved about how amazing the opening to The Last of Us is. In fact, the storytelling and voice acting has been consistently great in the several hours I’ve put into the game so far. The story elements of The Last of Us actually transcend what we are used to as “video game stories.” I genuinely care about the characters, and when I’m playing through an area, I am constantly looking forward to the next little tidbit of story that I’ll get to watch.

And that’s kind of the problem. In my experience so far, I’m not really enjoying the actual gameplay of The Last of Us. More specifically, I kind of hate the combat systems altogether.

The Last of Us teaches you to approach combat in a certain way–avoid it whenever possible. Your character (Joel) has a kind of radar sense, where he can listen closely to an area and discern where the enemies are. By using objects in the environment (bottles, bricks), you can distract enemies and lead them away from the path you need to take to escape an area. In general, it is preferable to do this, both because of the lethality of enemies, as well as the scarcity of weapons and ammunition. Certain enemies can one-hit kill you. You’re basically taught that if you do have to kill, do it stealthily (shiv to the neck), and only kill who you have to to get away. Guns attract enemies and are really only a good option when you’ve already screwed up, or you’re being attacked by large numbers. When you do use your gun, it’s inaccurate, as Joel’s shaky hand means you’ll be missing your target around a third of the time. Not good when you’re already low on ammo.

So, to summarize–your goal is to get Ellie (the young girl you’re protecting) from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. Avoiding combat is the best way to do that.

Sadly, the game spends a lot of time teaching you this golden rule, and then violating it on a frequent basis with unavoidable combat against large numbers of enemies. These moments are scripted, and you must kill all enemies before the game will move forward.

Every time I have died in The Last of Us has been during one of these unavoidable combat encounters. The clunky mechanics and lack of ammo combined with swarms of enemies that are designed to be taken one at a time result in a frustrating experience that takes me right out of the narrative. There’s nothing worse than a great character moment followed by having to repeat a maddening encounter several times.

I can’t imagine the combat systems will improve as the game goes on, as this seems to be the pattern so far, and I a decent ways into the game. If I wasn’t so interested in Joel and Ellie as characters, I’d have stopped playing by now. I almost wish someone would just pull out all the great story bits and moments of dialogue and string them together in a movie I could watch on YouTube.


Worth Reading: The Staff of USgamer on Good “Bad” Games

Back in January I said I was going to start highlighting more articles from other sites that contain the types of discussions we try to start here at Co-Op Critics. I’ve done a really bad job of that, but perhaps today’s entry will kickstart a more regular flow of these highlighted articles.

Over at USgamer (the sister site of Eurogamer), Pete Davison posted a great article today that fits in with The Year of B-Games series I’ve been doing here. The article is called “When Bad Isn’t Bad,” and Davison asks the staff of USgamer to reflect on some of the favorite games that were not critically or commercially well-received.

There are some interesting games on the list, including Ninja Blade, a From Software title that I’m hoping to get to this year for my B-Games series. Here’s a snippet of what USgamer’s Mike Williams had to say about Ninja Blade:

“Everything in Ninja Blade has to be there because it’s awesome. It’s the only explanation. Ogawa carries four different weapons on his back because it’s awesome. He does amazing skateboard tricks while surfing on a missile because it’s awesome. He hits a wrecking ball like a baseball because it’s awesome. Why does Ogawa ride a motorcycle through the sky to shove it down a boss’ throat? Because it’s goddamn awesome.

To see the rest of what Mike had to say and get the full list, you can read the full article here.

On a related note, I really like what I’m seeing from USgamer so far, and that’s not surprising seeing as 1UP alum Jeremy Parish is the Senior Editor for the site.


The Opening of The Last of Us Is Amazing

I started The Last of Us over the past weekend, and I’m about 25% through the game at this point. While I’ll certainly be writing about my overall experience when I’m done, the opening of The Last of Us deserves to be written about on its own.

Quite simply, it’s superb. Not only does the opening provide an origin story for the lead character Joel, but it introduces us to the world of The Last of Us at a point that makes everything that follows that much more impactful. The only other games that come to mind with openings of this caliber are Half-Life 2 and the original Bioshock. Like with both of those games, The Last of Us gives the player just enough interactivity to feel immersed in the world, but not so much that you miss what the game is trying to show you.

For me, The Last of Us actually rises above those other games because of the emotional punch the opening has. As a player, you’re not only seeing the defining moment of this world’s creation, but the defining moment of the main character’s creation.

I was actually tempted to embed the YouTube video of the game’s opening here, but you should experience it in the game. It’s that good.

In fact, the opening for The Last of Us might actually be too good, because it sets a bar for the game that’s almost impossible to live up to. It was one of the few times in gaming where I actually put the controller down and had to take a breather to process what I’d just experienced. The last time that happened was at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

Whether the overall experience lives up to the game’s opening, I have no problem recommending people check the game out. In the time I’ve spent with it, I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.


Animal Crossing: New Leaf–An Elegant Introduction of Systems

This past Friday, I picked up two brand new games–Animal Crossing: New Leaf for 3DS and The Last of Us for PS3. Three days later, The Last of Us in still in the shrink wrap, and I am completely addicted to Animal Crossing. There is something about this game, man. The more I play it, the more I want to evangelize it.

The crazy thing is, I had never played an Animal Crossing game until Wild World came out for the DS in 2005. I put a few dozen hours into the game, before I got distracted by something else. When City Folk came out in 2008, I tried to get into it, but the awful WiiSpeak killed any excitement I had for multiplayer, and I kind of realized that for me, Animal Crossing is a handheld console experience.

So along comes Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and from the moment I started the game, I’ve been completely hooked. In the first several hours I’ve spent with it, what strikes me most about the game is how well designed all of its systems are. When you arrive at town, you find out that you’re the new mayor, and from that point forward, you get introduced to all of the game’s systems in a very methodical way. Before you can start your mayorly duties, you need to buy a house, which brings in Tom Nook and the notion that you’ll be owing him money for the rest of eternity. Then you learn about how to make money through fishing, bug collecting and farming. After that, you find out that you need to interact with residents to raise your approval rating as mayor, giving you a run through of the social system in the game. And so on, and so on.

I love the way the game brings you in and just layers all of its systems in a way that makes perfect sense. There are some hadcore simulation aspects to Animal Crossing, but they are never presented in that panic-inducing type of way that takes away from the relaxed feel of the experience. I want to engage with all of the systems, instead of feeling compelled to try and manage them.

I’ll post more when I get farther into the game, but I thought it was worth mentioning what a great job Animal Crossing: New Leaf does of educating new players about its many systems. I think that the technical excellence of this series often gets overlooked because of it’s cute exterior. It really is amazingly well designed.


Grr! Where Are All the Games That I Don’t Have the Time or Money to Play?!!

This is a bit of a tangent, but it came to mind as I was watching the E3 presser reactions on Twitter over the past 24 hours.

Every time a new console launches, there is public outcry from gamers about the lack of games for it.

Every. Single. Time.

XBox 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS, Vita and now WiiU are just the examples from this generation. Despite promises from both Microsoft and Sony about their launches, I think we all know that at some point in their launch cycle, there will be a drought of new releases.

You know what? It’s not that big of a deal, people.

You could make the argument that it matters from a business standpoint, because of course having a robust library for your new console will help sell units. But most gamers act as if they are on the boards of these companies, getting up in arms about something that doesn’t even affect them.

A lot of gamers act as if they have unlimited money and time when they rant about this topic. Would I have liked the WiiU to have a better launch lineup? Absolutely. But the fact is, the only game I’ve completely finished for the WiiU so far has been ZombiU. I still need to finish New Super Mario Bros. U and LEGO City Undercover, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. Not to mention that I’ve got a slew of games from the eShop that I’ve barely touched. I’m not even ready for Pikmin 3 yet, whenever the hack it actually comes out.

And I don’t think I’m that far from the norm. Most of us don’t have the time and money to play everything. If the new XBox One launches with 27 games on day one, or even over the first three months, do you have $1600 and 270+ hours to play them between November and January? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most gamers don’t.

So, who gives a crap if there are a slew of games at launch? You’re going to get two or three over the first few months and then grab the others for less moeny down the road, if at all.

WiiU is going to be just fine come this holiday season, and both new consoles will have more than enough games to keep gamers happy. They’ll certainly have more than enough to keep me happy, as evidenced by the hundreds of games I’m still catching up on from this current gen.

So, everyone just settle down, okay?


It’s Not You, PS4 and Xbox One–It’s Me

So, Microsoft had their Xbox Reveal event today and announced the XBox One. Similar in specs to the PS4, XBox One seems to be differentiating itself in terms of it’s commitment to being your one media box, with a focus on TV, web and Skype integration. There are a million articles about the new box, and Game Informer has a nice hub of info here.

Right now, I own an XBox 360, PS3, WiiU and 3DS in terms of gaming-centric devices. I also own a smartphone, an iPad 2 and a Kindle Fire HD. Yes, I have a bit of a tech-buying problem. Here’s the crazy thing, though–with all those devices, I currently spend less than five total hours a week playing games.

And that is really the big difference between now and when the last console generation started. When I first picked up an XBox 360, I had one less child, and a lot more free time. I spent an average of 15-20 hours a week gaming, sometimes more. Every weekend I was up until the wee hours on XBox Live with friends. I put hundreds of hours into Modern Warfare and the Left 4 Dead series, among others. I also spent a hefty amount of time with the PS3, much of it on RPGs that I pumped countless hours into as well. I’ve spent over 300 hours on the Souls series alone.

Over the past two years though, my gaming has decreased dramatically. Picking up the WiiU was probably a mistake–not because there’s not enough games for it, but because I have little time to actually play it. Don’t get me wrong, ZombiU was amazing and I’ve had a blast playing Lego City with my son, but the lesson I’ve learned here is that I just don’t have the time to be the gamer I used to be anymore.

Not to mention, as the “Year of B-Games” has reminded me, there are a ton of XBox 360, PS3 and Wii games that I still want to play. At my current gaming rate, these could last me years–literally.

Which may ultimately mean that I don’t end up grabbing either the Xbox One or the PS4 come this fall. My compulsion to buy new tech will surely be eating away at me, and I’m sure I’ll cave at some point. But I think there’s a very good chance that for me, the next console generation will be a one console generation. I’m going to have to pick one and go all-in, as I simply don’t have the time (or money) to justify being a multiple console owner anymore.

I’m still looking forward to E3, and I’m still excited about the future when it comes to games. But much like the other hobbies that have been marginalized over the years, my days of 24/7 gaming are over. I may be spectating for much of the next generation, as I’ll still be playing catch up on the games I have yet to experience from current consoles.


Dead Space 3 Is Not The Experience in Terror I was Looking For

Man, I hate to be that guy.

You know, the guy who’s all like “They changed my beloved franchise into something I don’t recognize anymore just to sell more copies to the mainstream!” That guy.

But, as much as I hate to say it, they changed my beloved franchise into something I don’t recognize anymore just to sell more copies to the mainstream.

And by my beloved franchise, I mean the Dead Space franchise. Because Dead Space 3, to me, is a stark contrast to the survival horror game that was the original, and it took the worst parts of Dead Space 2 and used them as building blocks for the third game.

Have I mentioned I love the Dead Space franchise? Because I do. I covered the hell out of the original game during my days at CBR. My pal Antony Johnston worked on the first game, wrote all of Dead Space Extraction and wrote some great tie-in comics as well. I interviewed the writer of Dead Space 2 on Secret Identity. I’ve read all the comics, and the tie-in novel. I’ve watched all the animated films (the first of which was written by comic superstars Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray).

I tell you all that because I really do love the Dead Space world. And both the world, and the games themselves, are firmly rooted in horror. The first game was a genuinely scary survival horror game that helped keep a failing genre afloat for a few years until other games started picking up the slack. Dead Space Extraction featured simplified mechanics but retained the great story and tension of the first game. Dead Space 2 was the equivalent of Aliens to the first game’s Alien, taking the action up a notch but keeping the scares and expanding the world at the same time. There were some questionable design decisions in Dead Space 2, but the whole of the game overshadowed any of the stumbles.

With Dead Space 3, the pendulum has swung completely to the action side, at the expense of both the storytelling and the horror of the first two games. The two places where this is most evident is in the pacing and in the way combat is approached.

What made the first two games so scary was the methodical pace they had. You would frequently find yourself introduced to an area and then be forced to explore it before any real combat began. Tension would continue to build, as there could be several minutes where you did not see an enemy, or perhaps just caught a glimpse on one off in the distance. When combat did occur, it was less about dealing with hordes of enemies and more about using your skills to take on small numbers of dangerous enemies at a time.

Dead Space 3 still uses pretty much the same mechanics as the first two games, but they don’t hold up as well because the nature of combat has changed significantly. Most encounters are with multiple enemies of different kinds, so I constantly have to use my stasis (slow things down) and kinesis (throw things around) abilities in conjunction with my weapons. And this is where things break down. Isaac moves pretty slowly, and aiming is imprecise. Which often means that I’m either wasting precious stasis blasts by missing enemies completely, or I’m waiting until they get in close enough to guarantee a hit, which defeats the purpose. So, combat often devolves into me firing wildly at the three enemies that are now on top of me, and trying to stasis them long enough to stomp them to death. Elegant it is not.

And that for me is the most glaring inconsistency in the design of Dead Space 3. The world itself, the atmosphere of the game and the mechanical systems seem designed for a methodical survival horror game, but the combat feels designed for a much faster action shooter. The result is a game where I actually dread combat, and as soon as I run into a frustrating encounter, I end my play session.

I could not stop playing Dead Space 1, 2 and Extraction. I have to force myself to spend time with Dead Space 3. That’s a real bummer. In many ways, I just wish someone would novelize the events of Dead Space 3 so that I could keep up with the story, but not have to play the game.


The Year of B-Games–Walking Dead: Survival Instinct

What is It? 
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a new first person survival game set in the world of The Walking Dead television series. Players take on the role of Daryl Dixon as he and his brother Merle travel the Georgia countryside trying to survive the initial stages of the zombie outbreak.

Why Does it Make the B-Game List?
Survival Instinct is a licensed game, made on a modest budget and an accelerated development cycle. The game retailed at $50, as opposed to the usual $60 price point. Its current metascore is 32 out of 100 for the XBox 360 platform, which is what I played it on. Since its release, the game has sold about 420,000 copies on all platforms combined.

Why It’s Worth Playing 
Because there are some really interesting ideas at play in Survival Instinct, especially for a first-person zombie game. For starters, the emphasis on stealth as opposed to combat give the game a great sense of atmosphere. Zombies are deadly in this game, particularly if you encounter more than one or two at a time. And ammo is scarce enough that a ‘run and gun’ approach won’t get you very far.

Survival Instinct also features a party management system, where you can send members of your group off on their own side missions to collect gas or supplies. Granted, it’s not very fleshed out, but it adds another layer to the game and it’s simple enough to manage.

The graphics aren’t amazing, but honestly I could care less about that–they do an adequate job of depicting the world, the story and a creepy atmosphere. A lot of the action happens in broad daylight, and there is some nice lighting throughout the game. And the sound design is pretty great in places.

Where Does It Stumble? 
Survival Instinct definitely stumbles in the technical category. There are a lot of invisible walls, the quicktime melee events are frustrating, and the zombie AI is inconsistent, which makes the stealth portions of the game inconsistent. I could never get a good feel for the aggro range of zombies. Weapons don’t have a lot of heft to them, and melee combat is clumsy, as you get into a pattern of shoving a zombie and then trying to gauge when it’s close enough to connect with your weapon. Having played ZombiU and loved it, I was hoping for more from the melee combat in this game.

There are some truly frustrating moments where you get attacked by a horde and the mechanics just don’t hold up to that kind of situation. Your character is not meant to fight a horde, as the zombies are too deadly, yet there are times where it’s unavoidable and leads to death after death. Worse still, the checkpointing system sometimes puts you in a worse situation when you do respawn.

Closing Thoughts
I’m really torn about this game, because while it isn’t a great game, it’s nowhere near as bad as many mainstream gaming sites are making it out to be. I feel like this is a classic case of the game being doomed by critics before it even came out. It also highlights the problems that B-Games face, and one of the reasons that I started this series in the first place. There is simply no place in today’s gaming market for a game like this.

Survival Instinct actually reminds me a lot of Deadly Premonition, as both were very ambitious in a lot of ways, but fell short because they didn’t have the resources to fully realize those ambitions. The big difference is that Deadly Premonition was released at a $20 price point in the US, and it became a cult hit, with people embracing many of its flaws because it offered a unique experience at a very reasonable price. The biggest misfire of Survival Instinct was the $50 price point in my opinion, because it signaled that the game was a budget title, but didn’t offer a low enough price point to justify overlooking its technical failures. If you can find it for under $30, it’s definitely worth checking out.

If you want to hear some behind the scenes about the development of this game, I interviewed Glenn Gamble from Terminal Reality about Survival Instinct right before the game came out. You can check that out here.