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The Walking Dead: Season Two Doesn’t Let Up in its First Episode

As if anyone needed to be reminded, the world of The Walking Dead is a pretty grim place. Zombies roam the earth, and the remnants of humanity fight for survival, usually at the cost of what made them human in the first place. There are no happy endings, and every single day is a struggle against the endless hordes of undead, and the scattered living who are usually worse than the zombies.

A couple weeks ago the second season of Telltale’s TWD episodic series came out, and the focus this time around is all on Clementine, the nine-year-old girl who was the co-star of the first season. In season two, she has to rely much more on herself for survival, and the first episode is an emotionally grueling tale that transforms Clementine as she loses whatever innocence she has left.

My intention was to sit down and play a bit of the episode last night, but I ended up playing through the entire thing, which took me a little over an hour and a half. I have a ten-year-old daughter, so I was immediately sucked into the idea of this young girl having to keep pushing forward in a world where death is literally around every single corner.

I’ve read a good chunk of The Walking Dead comics and have caught up on the TV show as of this most recent season. But I would have to say that Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead adventures games are my favorite incarnation of the universe. The interactivity of the games provides a level of depth to TWD universe that you just can’t get anywhere else. Whether or not that’s a universe you want to get in-depth with is a question you’ll need to answer, because this game pulls no punches. It’s not a “fun” story to experience, but it is powerful and expertly told.

The first episode of Season Two was a great opening act to Clementine’s next chapter. I just hope that somewhere out there in the dark, there are at least a few moments of peace for her.

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Tomb Raider’s Opening Features the Best and Worst of Quick-Time Events

Recently I wrote about how much the opening of The Last of Us grabbed me and got me invested in the world and story of the game.

I picked up Tomb Raider during the Steam Summer Sale and started playing it the other night. Turns out, that game has a pretty great opening as well. But where The Last of Us did a great job of keeping you in the moment during its opening, Tomb Raider constantly pulled me out of its opening.

From a story standpoint, Tomb Raider’s opening is immediately interesting. Through a series of quick-cut scenes, you see a young Lara Croft become shipwrecked on a mysterious island, where her life in put in peril immediately. As you take control of Lara, you’re tasked with trying to find a way out of a series of underground caverns, as things are collapsing around you and you run into some of the dangerous inhabitants of the island. It’s actually a great tutorial, as you learn the basic controls while navigating your way out.

But the quick-time events, man.

I’m not anti-QTEs at all–I grew up on Dragon’s Lair for crying out loud. When used well, quick-time events can be very effective. I enjoyed how the Mass Effect series had character moments (Paragon and Renegade) that could be activated by a trigger press at certain times. I enjoyed the hacking minigame in the first Mass Effect. In Gears of War, the idea of a timed button press to reload your gun faster and get a damage bonus is great. Telltale’s The Walking Dead also had some interesting implementations, particularly when fighting off a zombie that had grappled you.

In general, the QTEs that I hate have two components: (1) To fail is to die instantly, and (2) There is little to no margin for error.

Such is the case with many of the QTEs in Tomb Raider. There are a handful of points during Lara’s escape where the QTEs require exact timing. Worse, rather than a button press, they resort to wiggling the analog stick back and forth. A second too early or too late, and Lara gets killed in a horribly grisly manner.

So, as I played through the opening that featured an interesting story, there were places where I continued to die gruesomely several times, pulling me right out of the story before the title credits had even appeared. I had already lost some of my investment in the game by then.

Now, I did say in the title of this post that the game also featured the “best” of what QTEs can be used for, and there is one particularly good implementation in the opening Tomb Raider. At one point, Lara is scrambling from an underground cavern toward daylight, and you are actually using the right and left triggers to help her claw her way up a muddy, slippery slope. It reminded me of the scene in the original Modern Warfare when your chopper goes down and the soldier you control is crawling hand over hand amidst the wreckage. That kind of implementation really connects you to the moment.

When QTEs are used well, they add to the experience. The opening of Tomb Raider could have kept the QTEs,but made them much less punishing (at least during the intro of the game), and the effect would have been much more dramatic and rewarding.

You can watch the opening chapter of the game below, if you don’t mind the spoilers.

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Let the Year of “B-Games” Begin!!

A couple weeks ago I posted about how I just don’t have the time in my life anymore to play games as much as I’d like to. As a result, I’m buying fewer games, but spending more time with those games, trying to get as much out of the experience as I can. One of the byproducts of this approach is that it has largely freed me from the “new release” cycle of gaming, where I needed to play all the new games when everyone else was playing them, just to feel connected to the conversations of the moment. Now I pick and choose, buying games that I am really interested in, and often buying them months after release, when the price has dropped, or picking them up during digital sales on Steam, PSN or XBox Live.

One of the things I’ve noticed recently is that my gaming tastes have changed over the past few years as well, and they now resemble my taste in movies more than ever. Specifically, I find myself more interested in low-budget and overlooked games than in big budget, AAA releases. And I’m not necessarily talking about indie games. I’m talking about console games that, if they were movies, would be put in the “B-Movie” category. They could fall into this category for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is that they were made on a small budget compared to their more high-profile brethren. But, they also could have had a rocky development cycle, or a really short development cycle (as a lot of licensed games have). Or maybe they’re a port of a game that was put out on another platform. Whatever the reason, I want to play these games.

But wait, you might say, you don’t even have time to play all the “good” games. Why would you spend time with games that are, in many cases, not very good at all?

I will answer that by going back to my movie analogy. My favorite genre is low-budget horror movies. The reason I love these movies so much is that I’m always fascinated to see what the director, the cast, and the special effects team do with the limitations they have. Do they set the movie in one location? Do they overly rely on digital effects, or do they invest in practical effects at the cost of something else? What things does the movie prioritize, and what does it compromise? Does the story rely on a bunch of tropes, or really try to do something different? And if it does use tropes, how well does it execute on them?

I think the same way about low-budget or “B-category” games. What did the devs decide to prioritize versus compromise? Does the game have some really interesting systems but really bad visuals? Is the story the strong point, but the mechanics are bad? What’s the game’s strongest quality? What did the developer decide to build around? What are the interesting qualities of this game, despite the fact that it might not be very good overall?

In many ways, as someone who enjoys thinking about the process behind the product, “B-games” are so much more interesting to play than most big-budget games.

Don’t get me wrong, I still play a lot of big-budget games, and many of them are awesome and very interesting. But there is something about those mid to lower-tier games that fascinates me. And the reasons I’ve been thinking about this issue now are twofold. First, I am fascinated by the discussion around Aliens: Colonial Marines, and I will be grabbing it as soon as it drops in price. Second, since we are entering the end of this console generation, there is a whole library of games that are available on the cheap. Games you would never think of paying $60 for can be gotten for under $10 in most cases.

So, over the next year I’m going to revisit some of the “B-games” I’ve played, trying to finish the ones I can and figure out why I left the ones I didn’t finish. I’m looking forward to writing about them.

I’m sure everyone out there has their own definition of a “B-game,” but here’s a list of some that I’ve played that fit my definition:

Velvet Assassin                                                          The Saboteur
Legendary                                                                   Alone in the Dark
Alpha Protocol                                                            Dark Sector
Binary Domain                                                            Brink
Clive Barker’s Jericho                                                 Damnation
Deadly Premonition                                                    Far Cry Vengeance (Wii)
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra                                          Hellboy: The Science of Evil
X-Blades                                                                     Rise of Nightmares
Section 8: Prejudice                                                   Shadowrun
Two Worlds I & II                                                        The Conduit
Wanted: Weapons of Fate                                         Wet
Raven Squad: Operation Hidden Dagger                   The Club

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Gaming Stories: Cook, Serve, Delicious! Week 1

When I first opened my restaurant, I set my definition of “success” to mean survival. After more than a week in the restaurant game, I think that I can redefine “success” to mean more than just mere survival.

Day
Customers Served
Perfect Orders
Average Orders
Poor Orders
$ Earned
$ Tips Earned
Positive Buzz % Earned
Most Popular Item
1
55
53
1
1
361
0
26.5
Salad
2
64
62
1
1
432
18
      27.0
Grilled Chicken Breast
3
68
63
2
3
477
2
31.5
Beer
4
58
57
1
0
456
12
28.5
Wine
5
63
63
0
0
482
8
31.5
Chicken
6
60
60
0
0
494
14
30
Wine and beer
7
58
57
1
0
504
18
28.5
Wine
8
54
53
1
0
438
8
26.5
Wine
9
54
54
0
0
472
18
27
Chicken
10
65
65
0
0
538
12
32.5
Salad
11
58
58
0
0
470
6
29
Soda

I started with a menu of beer, wine, salad, and grilled chicken breast, but I’ve expanded my menu in the past week. The menu expansion took place a little faster than I would like, but I hadn’t expected that my clients in SherriSoda Tower would grow tired of the chicken so quickly. I have to cycle it out of my menu every couple of days. At first, I introduced a soda fountain, which I eventually upgraded to include flavor blasts. That has been a big hit, and it remains a staple of my little restaurant. I then added lasagna to my menu, and it  too was fairly successful. But it was a time intensive plate, and more importantly, it’s a labor intensive dish, since it requires creating three layers and adds more dishes to be cleaned. Even worse, it suffers menu rot just like my grilled chicken breast. I’ve since cycled in ice cream, a staple menu item, as my occasional replacement for chicken.

Since my business has been steady, I’ve begun to invest in the quality of my menu offerings. I first upgraded the quality of my beer from the cheapest beer my distributor would sell me to a more pleasant and expensive microbrew. Incidentally, I was able to increase the price of my beer from $5 to $8. As I mentioned, I’ve also introduced flavor blasts to my soda fountain, and I’ve also added thousand island salad dressing as an alternative to ranch dressing for my salads. Ranch dressing remains the more popular choice though.

I am beginning to have concerns about my clients. I love them because they pay me for my goods, but I am beginning to wonder if I am feeding their alcohol addictions. Frequently, I have customers who come in at 9 a.m. for a beer or a bottle of wine. I understand that SherriSoda Tower has workers in the night shift who may come in at 9 a.m. at the end of their shifts for a drink, but I don’t vet my customers. I am becoming very uneasy about this. The law of unintended consequences is hitting my conscience.

I’m also uneasy about how simply unhappy many of my customers look when they enter my restaurant. They are all satisfied by my food and my service; the positive buzz I’m accruing and the occasional praising e-mail from customers I receive can attest to this. However, there are no smiling customers, no customers dining in groups. My only customers are lonely, possibly depressed.

A typical customer. Note the stained clothing. He dines alone, like all my other customers.

That said, one of my customers won the lottery and gave me a $250 tip, so not all of my customers are in dire straits.

I’ve also increased my restaurant’s efficiency by investing in table foods and a better air conditioner to increase my customers’ patience, a dishwasher to cut down on the amount of time I spend washing dishes, and a garbage disposal to decrease the amount of time I dedicate to hauling trash to the dumpster. In a different time, I probably would have just more staff. Instead, I invested in technology. So much for the idea that a small business owner is the country’s job creation engine.

I’ve also passed two safety inspections. I’m grateful, but I’m not exactly sure what the inspectors are using for criteria. Thankfully, I don’t have a rodent infestation, unlike some other parts of SherriSoda Tower, and I have yet to fail to clean my toilets, take out my garbage, or wash the dishes in a timely manner.

Finally, I’ve discovered some alternate revenue streams. When all my orders are executed perfectly, my mentor rewards me with $200, which seems to me right now like a sizable amount of money. I’ve also taken bets from an eccentric fellow named Crazy Dave about my performance. I’m not sure if he’s rooting for me to fail or to succeed; he’s certainly gambling that I won’t succeed. This is why I gladly took his money on his bets that I would not be able to serve 15 consecutive customers perfectly or that I would be able to serve 20 consecutive customers perfectly while I had salads and ice cream on my menu.

I still lack a grill, a stove, or a deep fryer, so my hot food options are limited to grilled chicken and lasagna. My strategy for now is to concentrate on raising funds so I can upgrade the quality of my wine and ice cream. They’ll generate revenue so I can begin to buy meat that I can then add to my lasagna or buy toilets that flush automatically.

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Gaming + The Internet = Sadness–It Never Ends

I wrote a series of posts recently on my own blog about how gamers on the internet (and some of the gaming press) have become a shouty mob of morons that are ruining the hobby. You may find those posts to be idiotic in their own right, but they’re my opinions nonetheless. I wrote them as more of a way to deal with my frustration at what I was seeing and hearing about my favorite hobby. And I thought I was done getting everything off my chest, until yesterday.

Because yesterday, the internet took stupidity to another level.

THQ, the struggling publisher behind such awesome games as Company of Heroes, Darksiders and Saints Row, did something awesome yesterday. They offered a “Humble Bundle” promotion, where you could pay whatever you wanted to six amazing THQ games. If you paid one cent more than the average person, you unlocked a seventh game, the fantastic Saints Row: The Third. Best of all, you could determine what part of the amount you spent went to charity, what part went to THQ, and what went to the “Humble Bundle” folks that organize these sales.

So, for a small donation, I got Metro 2033, three Company of Heroes games, the original Darksiders, Red Faction: Armageddon and Saints Row: The Third. And I helped the Child’s Play charity. Awesome, right?

Apparently not to a lot of the shouty internet gaming community, and some gaming / tech websites.

See, a lot of gamers seem to feel that because the “Humble Bundle” sales began as a way to promote indie games (they were called “Humble Indie Bundles”), having a big name publisher like THQ take part tarnishes the good name of the “Humble Bundle” brand. Worse still (according to the internet), while the “Humble Indie Bundles” have always been DRM-free downloads of games, the THQ one requires (gasp) Steam activation. So, in the eyes of the outraged, not only does the big evil publisher come along and ruin the “Humble Bundle” name, but they bring the dreaded DRM with them.

Really?

Seriously?

Are we still talking about games here, people?

I give up. I’m going to go play some Metro 2033 now. Rage amongst yourselves. When you’re done determining whether or not the “Humble Bundle” is still humble anymore, you can finally resolve whether Green Day is punk or not, and why your former favorite comic creator is or isn’t a sellout because they’re writing for Marvel now.

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This Holiday Gaming Season, It’s All About the Handhelds for Me

As I was scouring the internet looking at Black Friday game deals, a thought occurred to me–this is the first year I can remember where there are more handheld games I want to play than console/PC ones.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call the holiday gaming season September 2012 to February 2013.

Just off the top of my head, here’s the list of current and upcoming (in the next month or two) console/PC games I’m playing/interested in right now (as well as my preferred platform):

Halo 4 (XBox 360)
CoD: Black Ops 2 (XBox 360)
Borderlands 2 (XBox 360)
Dishonored (PS3)
Hawken (PC)
ZombiU (even though I don’t have a WiiU yet)
Black Mesa Source (PC)
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Crysis 3 (Xbox 360)
Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut (PS3)
Dead Space 3 (PS3)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3)

Here’s the handheld list:

Pokemon Black/White Version 2 (3DS)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (PS Vita)
LEGO Lord of the Rings (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (3DS)
Little Big Planet Vita (PS Vita)
Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage? (3DS)
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (PS Vita)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (3DS)
Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale (PS Vita)
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
Retro City Rampage (PS Vita)
Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (PS Vita)
Uncharted: Fight for Fortune (PS Vita)
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate (3DS)
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS Vita)

What’s more interesting to me as I look over that list is that there are games I would rather play on handheld than on console/PC. Retro City Rampage, Sly Cooper, Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank and the LEGO games are all ones that I would prefer on either the 3DS or Vita instead of on the larger platforms. In fact, the only games I can definitively say i’d rather not play on a handheld are first-person shooters and larger RPGs that just could not be done on a handheld.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way, but I suspect it’s because I no longer have time in my life for the marathon gaming sessions of even a few years ago. I get 1-2 hour increments at the most, and I squeeze them in wherever I can. So, I tend to want my games in a format that is easily accessible and consumable in bite-size chunks. But I also still want a meatier experience than most iOS and Android games can provide at this point. when it comes to console and PC now, I reserve that precious time for experiences that I can’t get on a handheld.

I think a lot of my friends are still finding the time to play console and PC games on a more regular basis than me, and their preferences are now the opposite of mine. They have little interest in either the 3DS or the Vita, whereas I find myself gravitating toward them more and more.

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Force Test–Part 1: It’s All About Atmosphere

After spending a couple hours with the just-released, free-to-play version of Star Wars: The Old Republic, I’ve already seen some good, some not so good and some very intriguing things.

For starters, the cinematics in SWTOR are amazing. I had seen one of them before (the forest battle between troopers, Sith and Jedi), but the opening cinematic is stunning.

Once I got past the opening, I got to make my character. The transaction-based options are immediately apparent from the get go. While all of the classes are available to F2P players, only three of the species (Human, Cyborg and Zabrak) are available. Of course, you can purchase the other ones if you want. So, I made a female cyborg Smuggler, who is in league with the Galactic Republic.

The character customization options are decent, as there are several different versions of each feature to choose from (hair, eyes, etc.), but not the granular type of customization that offers infinite options for customization. Nonetheless, I was happy with the look of my character and moved on to the proper game.

The Galactic Republic storyline has its own cinematic, which was the one I’d seen before in previews (the aforementioned forest battle).

My storyline began as my character flew into Ord Mantell, a planet embroiled in a civil war. As soon as I began interacting with NPCs, the familiar Bioware conversation system came into play, and it works just as well here as in their other games. There wasn’t a lot of time for chit chat though, as there was a separatist attack going on that I needed to get out there and deal with.

Ironically, the combat is where I had the least amount of fun with the game in my first session. It’s very much the typical MMO style on combat–clicking on enemies, powers and abilities assigned to number keys, etc. The familiar pattern of ‘use an ability-wait for it to recharge-use it again’ feels the same in SWTOR as in other MMOs. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the combat is certainly not going to be the thing that keeps me coming back to SWTOR.

But I will be coming back, and it’s the rest of the SWTOR package that will be the reason. The Star Wars setting, the rich conversation system, and the desire to see my storyline play out are already making me think about this game when I’m not playing it.

I’ll spend some more time with it over the next week and be back to post again.

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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!

GW2Classes

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.