Alternating between in-depth analysis and short, irreverent reviews.

My review style reflects that the internet will have many people attempting to write objective assessments of a game's quality. I aim to put forwards either a new angle on a game, or offer a personal anecdote which I feel embodies the experience of it.

My theory aims to go beyond the superficial 'what' of gaming, into the more subtle 'how'. It has been described as a phenomenology of gaming, which is obviously ludicrous.

 

Quake II in the Modern Era

When I was a wee one, my parents had all sorts of funny ideas about what was good and what was bad for me to be exposed to. To wit, my first first-person-shooting experience was Jedi Knight II, the first five levels of which may as well have been a Quake 3 expansion pack. The gems of yesteryear passed me by, but I recently obtained as bonus extras the entire id gaming catalogue, and decided to have a go. Quake II often gets sandwiched between Quake(world) as the first major multiplayer shooting hit, and Quake 3 as the perfect distillation of that formula. So naturally, after sampling the rush of nostalgia Spear of Destiny provided me with (Jedi Knight II not actually my first first-person-shooter, perhaps), I rolled into the Quake 2 single player.

It’s a blast. There are maps, there are guns, there are health packs and ammo, and of course there are a near-endless supply of enemies. What quickly became apparent to me, despite the muddy graphics and occasionally awkward sound design (oh, and that by default the game still starts playing whatever audio CD you happen to have in) was that at a basic level, not much has changed. The plethora of health packs round every corner start to approximate regenerating health, a cover system is a mere substitute for a well-placed crate to hide behind, and though the current trend is for modern warfare games throwing hordes of indistinct Middle-Easterns at you rather than alien mechanoids, the ways in which you dispatch them remain roughly the same.

Those enemies are where the modern shooters could learn a thing or two, really. Nearly every new enemy raised a deserved “What the hell is that?" from me, most notably a large boxy one two humanoids wide, with tank tracks for legs and a Robocop head. Magic. Most importantly though, while these new enemies were quickly dispatched (I am a pro), they upped the tempo of battle in a way modern shooters have a lack of. There’s a certain quickening of the pulse associated with them, a xenophobic fear. Each new enemy is wrong. This is something Call of Duty really lacks. Gimmick battles against snipers or grenade launchers don’t really do it. Even Half-Life 2 fails in this regard, with the Strider battles being so prepared that they don’t inspire this casual fear of the unknown. Modern games telegraph their new enemies so heavily that to find an eldritch horror like this baby:

An enemy.

What the fuck is that?

Isn’t something you have to remain in constant fear of. Halo had at least a slice of this in its first installment with the Hunters, big bulky fellows with an obvious weak spot, but even they were usually sent in on their own. 

Braid

I have a minor confession to make: the reason I haven’t played Braid until now, or felt the urge to pick it up until recently, has nothing to do with the platform gameplay or the ‘pretentious’ plot or any of that. No. It’s Tim.

Tim, from Braid

Look at him. What’s he wearing? That’s not even a suit, it’s a blazer. His grey trousers look stupid and no-one should be performing platform actions in shoes that business-like. I hate Tim, the protagonist of Braid, with a burning passion. Why is he smiling? His time-bending life is filled with loss and despair! Stop smiling! Stop it, Tim! Let’s not get into the topic of his hair parting.

Eventually, two years gone by, I have managed to overcome this basic disagreement with Braid’s philosophy to the point where I played the damn thing, and while the novelty of a 2D platformer with high production values carries even less weight now than it did back in 2009, it’s still a corker.

The plot didn’t strike a chord with me not because it was ‘pretentious’ - more games should have pretensions - but because it didn’t seem very tight. I was never quite sure of what story was being told, and the connection between disparate elements like the storybooks, the game levels, the dinosaurs who inform you of news of the Princess and the house you fill with jigsaw puzzles was weak at best. This doesn’t devalue the game’s ‘twist’, if you can call it that, which remains a masterful use of the game’s conceits. It just didn’t move me emotionally. I never really wanted Tim to get his Princess, and I wasn’t sure if the game was encouraging me to do so.

Braid’s main ‘feature’, the time travel, is excellent. It’s fun to play with, never feels like it makes the game easy, and solving puzzles with it makes you feel really clever. I’m not convinced of the game’s laissez-faire attitude to teaching you about it though. It comes into it’s own with the repetition of the level “The Pit”, but to begin with I just felt slightly abandonned, especially with some of the more technical puzzles in the first world. That you can skip them doesn’t excuse the problem. While we’re here, naming the first world ‘World 2’ with no sign of World 1 in sight is disorientating as well. One gets the feeling that mid-game aesthetics were given priority over early-game comfort, which is rarely a good trade and could have been worked around.

It was lots of fun though. Won’t make me stop hating Tim though. Stupid face.

Fear is Vigilance

It’s rare that a game manages to prove my opinion on it wrong, but it does happen, and Fear is Vigilance managed it. I was convinced that what was keeping my playing was the fun narrative and cute visuals, but once I had completed the plot the arcade mode kept me playing for 76 more beatings. As an aside, ranking you in terms of ‘beatings delivered’ is something Zeno Clash should definitely attempted.

There’s just something delightfully fun in how straight Fear is Vigilance plays it’s ridiculous concept out: clearly the game was born from the single idea ‘What if you beat people up so they would accept your free personal alarms more?’ and it immediately brings out a smile. Having half the game be you actually attempting to hand out the alarms, rather than the more obvious choice of having the exposition done in a cutscene, is really entertaining - and the point made halfway through about people’s willingness to give endless amount of small change to charity without absorbing any of the message being given is very relevant.

It wouldn’t work half as well without the mechanics being the well-oiled success they are though. It’s simple fare, movement and two buttons, but you don’t move too slow and it’s not easier than it should be to get on the floor, having the crap kicked out of you. In addition, one of the arcade stages is on an ice rink and you can charge people. All games should have this.

(Source: wootfu.com)

These Robotic Hearts of Mine

As you’d expect given the name, ‘These Robotic Hearts of Mine’ tugs at the heartstrings. That’s not something to dismiss lightly in a cog-turning puzzle about aligning hearts vertically, which more than anything reminds me of this goofy thing I played with as a child:

Rubik's Clock

The story is told using inter-level snippets of text, which just slightly correspond to the level design which follows. It’s slightly corny stuff, the tale of a boy, a girl and a robot they find and how they get on, but it’s the right scale of plot for a flash puzzle game - reading walls of text between levels would kill the atmosphere entirely.

And what an atmosphere. The game practically crackles with an air firstly of young love, and later impending tragedy. The relation between level design and plot is a genius touch, the emotional impact of which cannot be overstated. Towards the end of the level set I felt anguish at completing the puzzles, given what they represented to the plot.

If I had to offer one criticism, it would be that an empty cog left unused in the solution, occasionally symbolic of a third person in the room, is the gaming equivalent of Chekhov’s gun - you want to find a use for it, especially as turning it counts towards the high-score turn counter. Even once you’ve realised the significance of the plot device, it feels wrong. Perhaps giving each empty cog a single lonely heart to align would work.

Overall though, the game is a huge success, earning a level of gravitas which avoids feeling a little sterile in the way ‘One Chance’ for instance did for me. Apparently what I’ve played is far from the finished item, so I’ll be interested to see where it goes.

And Yet It Moves

A special place in hell is already reserved for developers who have unusually short kill drops in a platform game, but I think there must be a special subsection of even more terror in that already small portion of hell, reserved for the developers of games which not only have unusually short kill drops, but also an extensive range of puzzles involving flipping yourself long distances using a bouncy pad. Dante would approve.

There is genuinely a sense playing And Yet It Moves that the developers having finished the game, didn’t bother letting anyone else have a go. Creator blindness explains all the issues I had with the game, chief among them the rage-inducing kill drop. In And Yet It Moves, you have control over gravity. You can rotate or flip it to make your character fall where he needs to be. He cannot though move more than six inches in one particular fall lest the impact crush him into pieces. Unless he’s been on one of those mind-boggling jump pads where you can’t even work up a bounce with the jump key: you have to flip gravity, get a six-inch drop, flip back and use the momentum from that to bounce you. It’s nonsensical.

The graphical design is pleasing on the eye, although the animation of the main character wants to be charmingly shoddy. It comes off actually shoddy, especially when he falls apart another bastarding time.

Zeno Clash

First-person melee combat is a sadly underdeveloped practice. While it doesn’t naturally lend itself to keyboard and mouse control like first person shooting does, one would expect more attempts like Zeno Clash at cracking this mysterious egg of fun.

Zeno Clash has it where it counts: The punches connect, and connect hard. Each one is a solid thump, and the intuitive dodging mechanism makes you feel like a devilish little sneak each time. Like Hammerfight, single combat is a visceral thrill, if a little easy - glowing orange fruit replenishes your health, but your foes seem unaware of it.

Also like Hammerfight though, the developers seem unsure of their baby. The combat is constantly mixed up, to varying degrees of success. The first time you fight the Hunter, a blind sniper who ‘sees’ you through the affections of explosive squirrels, is a novel affair. The second time feels like an unwelcome rerun, especially as it is immediately followed by a third fight which is actually quite novel.

The ‘tank’ fights, where you are forced to use sticks and hammers in order to damage larger creatures feel simplistic and dumbed-down compared to the regular combat, although the satisfying crunch of the hammer blows means I can’t be too harsh on them. The occasional ‘fight some animals’ sections however bring forth shadows of Daikatana.

If these sections feel like padding, the game is nonetheless very short, which is a shame because there is an interesting world constructed with original character design. The fire-staff section stands out as particularly neglected.

The experience was on the whole enjoyable, and Father-Mother with his constantly shifting pronouns was genuinely quite a creepy bastard up until the end. Nightmare fuel.

Magicka’s magickas

There is a distinct genius in the mechanics of Magicka, a problem the developers very wisely avoided. That is, the magickas themselves. The spell-creating system Magicka employs allows for a large number of possible spell combinations and it would have been all too tempting to simply make the magickas, once learned, fit into this system somehow - force people to explore the spell options in order to find them. The actual system, using both the spell combinations and a special ‘Magickas’ button, is far superior.

Why? To maintain mechanical clarity, of course. The spell combinations in Magicka are deliciously predictable. With a little preparation, you can anticipate what almost any combination will do, and draw something up on the fly. The magickas are icing on this cake, special case scenarios allowed their own special graphics and effects, but they are at a fundamental disconnect with the combinations system.

If Magicka has a failing, it is that the majority of the combinations are somewhat under-powered - the lightening/evil/steam combination dwarfs the rest in effectiveness in the late game. A super area-of-effect rock attack, perhaps, might give cause to consider another option. The competition for attention is rarely between the combinations and the magickas, though. They complement each other, like a traditional sword/bow mix in other action-role-playing-games.

Bastion, the demo of

Poor finances compelling me not to purchase the game proper, I am left with the option of reviewing the game demo. Fortunately, it’s a cracker. The demo of Bastion is a somewhat off-kilter role-playing game in the Diablo (action) lineage. There are weapons, you press buttons to use them, enemies fall before you in droves. The enemies are plentiful enough to be identified in droves.

The demo of Bastion looks gorgeous. Pixel art writ large, warm and colourful. If a criticism can be put against it, it is that from a distance detail can be lost. This is not uncommon in PC gaming though - I tried playing Assassin’s Creed from my bed last night and found that the interface was a lot smaller than I remembered, and had to crawl back into my gaming chair. I own a gaming chair.

If the demo of Bastion needed to be reduced to a single selling point, it is the glorious voiceover narration, which brings to mind GlaDOS in Portal 2 Co-op. A character in himself, the narrator guides you along, offering advice and pithy comments - ‘Kid just rages for a while’ - I was! Game developers should be wary of putting large yet finite amounts of destructibles in their games, lest players like me spend hours hacking down each one in the mistaken belief that they are doing something worthwhile.

The fighting is enjoyable, with distinctive weapons and abilities. I imagine if I were to continue into the full game I would get more out of it. It’s always frustrating though to be using an analogue stick and yet be limited to shooting at discrete angles. The shield seems to function as some sort of a lock-on, which alleviates this somewhat. The demo did not explain this though. Bad demo of Bastion!

League of Legends and Community

I will admit it: I’m not a huge fan of League of Legends. It’s playable enough, sure, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and I’m fairly sure it was the awkward transition from the windowed marketplace/lobby to the fullscreen game. Developers: pick a size and stick with it. Also of mild concern was the inability to zoom out further than about five inches from your character’s back, to obtain a more general view of what’s going on. C’est la vie: these are not game-killing issues.

What kills League of Legends for me is the community. It seems to be a running problem for all these DOTA-alikes: I’ve never heard the surrounding community of any of them referred to as less than ‘aggressive’. League of Legends is a game in which you are obliged to pull your weight; poor performance leads not only to mockery from the enemy team, but abuse from your own. Possibly even an encounter with the game’s draconian discipline system - most prominently, there are large, instant penalties against leaving a game, for any reason. Even leaving the opening lobby is disallowed - you receive up to a 3 minute ban for dropping out before the game has even started. The rants on the official forum recurringly feature a single phrase: ‘wasting time’. A player leaving after 30 minutes is considered to have wasted 30 minutes of each of his teammates’ time.

Now I’m old fashioned, but I never considered a game in which I lost to be a waste of my time. Even the games I lost due to circumstances out of my control; maybe it’s a product of many years spent playing Counter-strike Source at 12fps, or length Age of Empires games where a connection blip could shatter the fragile network of connections keeping everyone together. It happened. The fun of the game was in playing it, not necessarily in winning. Some of the best memories I have are of losing a game, epic efforts to cling onto life in the face of an overwhelming foe, etc, etc.

League of Legends seems to reject this entirely, but it’s not the people playing who are rejecting it. There’s something very creepy about hearing the language of the game creep into your social circle. Phrases like ‘If we aren’t going to surrender, can we at least try to win’ being uttered over team chat. After a particularly close loss the other day, one of my friends exclaimed ‘Well, I just wasted an hour of my time’ and left. It was chilling. Like that part in Lord of the Rings where the Frodo refers to the ring as precious. Where does this stuff come from? Is it in the water?

The simplest conclusion to be drawn then, is that the DOTA archetype is creating this monster. There is something in the model which naturally conveys people into this world of being deeply concerned with other people’s performance.

To pick an simpler version of what I’m talking about, consider the auto-sniper in Counter-strike. Now, Counter-strike is a very finely balanced game, working off years of experience. The auto-sniper is considered a balanced tool in that toolset and it is not restricted in professional competitions. Yet, as all Counter-strike players know, the auto-sniper is not to be used. There is a stigma attached to it, and it can be anything from other player’s complaints to being banned from the server for using it. Often the gun is restricted by use of a server mod - or, most tellingly by judacious use of the voteban command.

What is occuring here is a social response to in-game inbalance. The auto-sniper is not impossible to counter, but doing so requires either a large amount of skill, or an element of teamwork - both in short supply on public Counter-strike servers. In the face of this imbalance, a social strategy naturally forms: agree not to use the auto-sniper. The prisoner’s dilemma isn’t applicable here, because were everyone to use the auto-sniper, the game would fall apart - and indeed, if you’ve ever been on a server with no admin and no voteban with someone who is unbalancing the game, the server rapidly empties. The players are driven to balance the game, not win it. The use of tools like voteban and the social conditioning towards not using certain strategies have become part of the Counter-strike meta-game. 

So where does this leave League of Legends? If you check the League of Legends website, the word which sticks out time and time again is ‘competitive’. This is a competitive game. It is a five-man team game which utterly requires a five man team to beat. The game has very few maps used (2) - the explanation is that they take too much time to balance. Indeed, League of Legends’ primary map Summoner’s Rift is near-perfectly balanced, but from beneath as well as above - not only is it near-impossible for one five-man team to get an unbreakable hold on the map, it is near-impossible for a four-man team to get any kind of hold on the map. If you lose a player, you lose the game. Losing a player is the ultimate imbalance in League of Legends. So like we see in Counter-strike, social pressures come in to fill the gap. Keeping the team together becomes part of the game itself - even the most important part, given the certainty of loss it entails. As players learn the game and its strategies, this one above all imprints itself into them, learned from both experience and the confirmation of other players: You must not leave. Part of the game.

This is doubly confirmed by Riot Games’ actual meta-game structures. Whereas on Counter-strike the server mods which codify the social rules are optional, in League of Legends pressure from the player base has caused the developer to enforce that no-one quits: the aforementioned draconian bans, as well as a ‘Tribunal’ in which players can present their case that other players were not taking the game seriously enough. In addition, the ranking system tries to ensure that players with different levels of skill are divided. In the end, the clue was in the constant complaint: ‘wasting my time’. From the player’s perspective, playing League of Legends with a player less, or just a player less skilled, breaks the meta-game rules. It is akin to the emptying Counter-strike server, except it only becomes clear that one player is going to kill everyone with the auto-sniper 30 minutes into the round.

How would I fix this? It would perhaps be mediated by allowing mid-game joins - even with different champions. It would be less competitive for sure, but then it is just a game. Otherwise, any attempts to patch over this like the aforementioned Tribunal are doomed to fail. The problem is systemic.