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Season 5, y'all! (Photo courtesy Roman Skrada)
Mad Men is BACK…but shhhh! I haven’t seen the premiere yet. Trying to finish S4 first and I’ve got about three episodes to burn through. I’ll get it tonight. Don’t worry.
Was supposed to watch one, but…didn’t get around to it.
Persona 4: The Animation – This show continues to be awesome. The Nanako stuff was really emotionally tough to watch, wow.
Archer – Oh man, the space stuff was so great. This show is so zany and awesome.
New Girl – I haven’t been able to enjoy this show as much since I started watching Happy Endings. That show just seems to do the same thing a lot better.
Fashion Police – My girlfriend makes me watch this. It was great when it was a half hour…now it’s always an hour long. At least Joan Rivers is kind of funny.
Community – Back to weird for Community. The impersonator stuff was hilariously odd. I wonder what they’re setting up with all the Dark Abed and Chang stuff.
Happy Endings – This week’s episode was weaker, but I went through the whole series with Min again. Can’t wait to catch the first half of S2 because the show is a lot better in S2. Not that it was bad in S1, but they’re a lot crazier and funnier in S2.
Justified – the old lady with the milkshake was awesome. The animosity toward the outsiders is pretty amazing. The standoff between Quarles and Raylan was great. Loved when the bartender got into it too.
Up All Night – The Chris on the show thing was pretty obvious, but it had its funny moments.
Mad Men – S4 was pretty great, wasn’t it? Just saw “The Beautiful Girls”. An astounding episode. The scene in “The Summer Man” where Joan tells off the men with respect to Vietnam gives me chills every time.
La Vida Boheme – Check it out.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – If I don’t finish this book this week I’m burning it.
Mass Effect 3 – Still enjoying the multiplayer, but I want to unlock some Krogans and Asari already!
New Super Mario Bros. Wii – Still pretty brilliant. The Yoshi level was fun since Min and I were antagonizing each other a bit.
Super Street Fighter IV – Min and I fought for a long while. Lots of fun playing one of the sharpest fighting games out there. Reminded me how out of practice I was.
This is a French video game for sure. (Picture courtesy Giant Bomb)
Evangelion 1.11 – Min has never seen Evangelion all the way through, so I figured the movies would be the best/easiest way to watch them.
Ip Man – I ran into this movie as a “Watch It Again” recommendation on Netflix, so I thought I’d show Min the aggressively pro-Chinese/anti-Japanese parts because I find it funny how blatantly nationalistic this movie is. Also the kung fu is pretty great to watch.
Up All Night – For some reason the runner about Missy being mean to her incredibly good-looking British boyfriend she met off of J-Date is absolutely hilarious. This show is pretty solid. Not amazing, but solid. Good for a few guaranteed laughs.
The League – Finally caught the last three of the season. Allison Williams is hot. WOW! My favorite line, from Kevin to an ex-con: “How were the pick-up basketball games?” “Violent.”
Justified – Strong return. Holy cow that was awesome. The tension in the draw scene was awesome. Best line: “You didn’t have to do that, Ava.” “Of course I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”
New Girl – “Frankie Munoz’s” was a great, silly joke. LIZZY CAPLAN! Why is she so skinny?! Too skinny. She punched the guy who played Todd in Community! Pretty good episode, but I wish Lizzy Caplan could stay for longer.
Childrens Hospital – Best line: “I would slit my wife’s throat to be with you”. For Malin Åkerman? I think I might too.
Sherlock – Min didn’t catch this when it was on PBS last year so I thought I’d share. Fantastic update of the Sherlock Holmes mythology.
Parks and Recreation – “Bobby Newport” “Bobby NEWport”. Anyway, Paul Rudd was fantastic in his role as a stupid opponent to Leslie’s campaign. I liked the part where he was upset about them smiling after besting him. Great line. The Andy/April stuff was kind of dumb, but I still laughed a bunch at it.
Project Runway: All Stars – Yeah, yeah…Tiffany makes me watch these with her sometimes. They’re not as terrible as other reality shows, so I don’t complain that much. This one had Miss Piggy on it and all the contestants were talking about how awesome it would be to design a dress for her. Um…I’m pretty sure they were paid to say that because it was a pretty ridiculous show concept.
Archer – Burt Reynolds! Pretty good episode. Strong return to form for the show. I like the maintained continuity with Ray and the wheelchair.
Zelda Step – I got a fever. The only cure, more (Legend of Zelda) dubstep.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Still slowly reading it during lunch breaks. Still kind of dry.
The Old Republic – Making progress as my Bounty Hunter. He just stole a spaceship for himself! As my Sith Inquisitor I’m making good money playing the Global Trade Network and our guild downed Soa in Eternity Vault on Normal.
Rayman: Origins – Been waiting to have Min over before I played this. Super fun! It reminds me of the fun times playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but in HD. I hope I can get Eric and Danielle over (or go over to their place) to play it. It’s lots of fun and I think they’d like it.
Chrono Trigger DS – I don’t know why I keep forgetting to mention I’m playing this. Beat the bonus boss and got the “new” ending. I might NG+ it to get the other 9 or so…might not. We’ll see.
Ghost Trick – Finally dug this up to give it some more playtime. Still absolutely hilarious, even in Spanish! That’s right, guys, I’m playing this game in Spanish to practice my reading skills. Tons of character, fantastic animation, and great humor.
New Super Mario Brothers Wii is marriage poison.
-Gabe (AKA Jerry Holkins). “The Fullness of Time“
In the past two months I’ve learned one very important truth about my friends: they’re complete jerks. Not in any friendship kind of way, but in the if-it-came-down-to-it-would-they-have-my-back kind of way. It all started with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Nintendo made an important design choice with the game by giving each character physical impenetrability with each other and allowing (almost) the entire moveset to work on fellow players. In a nutshell, you can push, run into, and jump off of your buddies and you can pick them up and throw them around, but fireballs pass through other players. The result can be total (accidental) chaos or it can devolve into actual, sincerely evil behavior toward your fellow players.
The evil doesn’t have to be obvious, like picking up fellow players and throwing them into a chasm, it can also be little things like taking multiple power-ups “by accident” or “inadvertently” getting in the way of jumps or platforms. In our case, we started off our first session for the night in the first world of NSMBW with a somewhat cooperative nature about us. I showed the other two how we could affect each other’s gameplay (I’d been practicing some a few days earlier at my brother’s house, which I’m not sure I’m welcome in anymore after playing, haha) and then popped us out really quick to play one of the legitimately competitive multiplayer modes. As I expected, putting us into a competitive mode for a few levels carried right on over to the cooperative experience and we were at each other’s throats for the rest of the game. Sometimes the sabotage was deliberate. I distinctly remember Darek picking me up and throwing me into lava when I least expected it. Since we were high up, it was torture to watch my avatar tumble for a few seconds before burning to death. Another time saw us all standing on a narrow platform. Ian suddenly jumped up and butt stomped me, sending poor Mario flying helplessly into a chasm. There was a glimmer of hope late in World 8. Faced with obstacles too tough to tackle while at each other’s throats, a temporary truce was effected and we were able to traverse the level after many attempts. That goodwill continued into the final battle against Bowser and we were finally able to conquer the game.
There is a drastic shift in tone when you go from NSMBW to Left 4 Dead 2, both in how vital cooperative play is and how devastating griefing can be to a team’s chances at survival. Valve crafted the game experience to almost ensure 100% failure when a player is by himself. Every time one of the four survivors is too separated, dead, or incapacitated, the chance of failure rises dramatically, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Playing this game gives you a feel for how your friends might react in a true zombie apocalypse. Consider that there is zero risk to a person’s real physical health in this game. Death just means you have to restart the level. That means that reckless behavior is far more likely, but Valve has crafted a game that still seems to encourage cautious, self-serving behavior in most. Let’s take a look at how some of my friends play to see what their personalities are like.
If there’s one thing that you can be sure of when you play a game with Nolan, it’s that he knows what he’s doing. How can you tell? He will loudly tell you at every chance what you’re doing wrong. Nolan is also very focused on winning at any cost. Exploiting the death system (when you die, you start the next level with higher health, but none of the weapons you had) and optimizing weapon load outs are his main strategies. Unfortunately for me, I can also count on him to let me die if he’s within running distance of the safe room. I could be just outside the door with only two zombies beating on my incapacitated body and I’m pretty sure he would just shoot me to help me die faster. Ruthless.
You know that one guy in a horror movie who’s always too far ahead or behind or too inquisitive? I’m sure you also know who tends to die first in those movies. Ian is always just out of reach or eyesight, which is devastating when you get pounced on by a hunter and it takes him so long to get back to you that you’ve been incapacitated. The opposite situation is also often true, with Ian so far ahead that the team gets there just in time to see him shuffle off of this mortal coil. Like Nolan, if you’re surrounded by zombies near a safe room, he will run inside and bolt the door shut. Expect the only help you might get from him to be a molotov cocktail…thrown at your still upright body, killing all the zombies and incapacitating you before you can escape the flames. Sometimes it’s better not to help…
A player who I feel has developed along the Dan Mesa path of Left 4 Dead playing, I can count on Min to risk life and limb to save me in any situation, provided I don’t tell him to just continue on without me. Min likes to stick with the group and remains mostly aware of the status of the other three players. When the going gets tough, you can count on him to at least try to save the team (or blow them up by accident with a grenade launcher), but if you’ve been getting on his nerves, he may just leave you to die.
The funny thing is that these gameplay styles mostly translate to the personalities of the friends involved. I can’t tell you how many times we’d be walking home from dinner and Ian would suddenly be missing because he was playing with a giant snowball or rushing ahead to beat us somewhere. As to whether or not Nolan would truly let me die in a zombie apocalypse, I can’t really be sure about it without the zombpocalypse occurring, but I’m not that optimistic.
You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:
This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:
Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)
There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Rock Band 2 (2008)
Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.
Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.
Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.
The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.
Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.
Mass Effect (2007)
Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.
Eternal Darkness (2002)
I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.
Rhythm Heaven (2009)
Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)
I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.
World of Warcraft (2004)
I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.
The Sims 2 (2004)
Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)
Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.
A lot of you have already seen this, but I think it’s pretty amazing stuff. Watch as the other three players beat the level for Luigi, earning him plenty of lives in the process.
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.
Do you know who Tim Schafer is?
When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.
My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.
The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.
It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.
Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.
Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”
Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.
I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.
Have you ever played Grim Fandango?
We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.
The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.
What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.
Did you buy Psychonauts?
I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.
Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).
It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.
The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.
Was that a good idea?
It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.
Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.
I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?
As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?
“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”
- tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review
“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”
- tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review
tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.
I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.
Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).
“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”
-Tenacious D – “The Road”
“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”
-Tenacious D – “The Road”
Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.
So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.
The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.
Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).
At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.
Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre“
Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.
Quick Aside Time
I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.
Back to the review…
I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.
At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?
Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”
Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.
Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.
Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.
Last night was most definitely a game night, the likes of which I haven’t had in ages. Ian and Darek were both over to play some New Super Mario Bros. Wii and I was curious about whether or not I could ruin more friendships, so I started the evening with tomfoolery in mind.
In our marathon session (from about 1800 to 2300) we played through worlds 1, 2, half of 3, and 6-8. Like most Mario games, the first two worlds were pretty simple and there were few instances where we all died that weren’t caused by stupidity, so we really started to let our jerk flags fly. Some things we discovered while being tools:
- So long as there is one player physically interacting with the course, it will continue. That seems obvious, until you realize that at any time a player can press A to go into a bubble. Having taught that little trick to Darek and Ian, Darek was quick to learn a use for it that I hadn’t even considered. If I threw him off the level or he was about to die, he’d bubble up right away and float back to me. Ian and I picked it up soon after, but there were cases where we were all about to die, so we all bubbled up. Guess what, that’s a fail state. All players are returned to the world map, no lives are lost, but all power-ups are now gone.
- You can butt stomp another player off of their Yoshi to steal their ride. The stomp knocks them off and the continued downward momentum puts you in the saddle.
- While we’re still talking about Yoshi, he can eat almost anything. Shells, fireballs, hammers, other players, enemies, and berries. He can also hover.
- Butt stomping is a great way to kill a buddy. Depending on their reaction time, they probably won’t be able to bubble up in time to avoid falling off the platform you just knocked them into.
- Pounding down a chain chomp’s stake will launch it at full speed in the direction it was facing. Make sure it’s facing someone else.
- Fireballs are dynamic light sources in dark, cavernous levels. Great news, unless your partners are shooting fireballs alongside Fire Brothers and it becomes too confusing to tell which balls are safe and which aren’t
- The music in the game is so infectious that the enemies dance to it at certain times. Be aware of this if you’re trying to time a tricky jump.
That’s it for random things I noticed that aren’t completely obvious. A quick break for a coin battle after World 2 honed our competitive edge, but we quickly found ourselves teaming back up as we got closer and closer to World 8 and its mega-tough levels. One level, 8-5 or 8-6, had waves of lava obscuring platforms that we had to get across. A complex system was developed because I refused to just bubble up and let one person carry us across, so we ended up all trying to make our way as we lost tons of lives, but we had a lot of fun doing it and victory was sweeter at the end.
I won’t spoil anything about the final boss, but let me just say that it was appropriately awesome. We plan to team back up to take on the rest of the levels we skipped (along with the bonus world) soon. It’s just too good not to.
I got less play time with this than I hoped, since Valve’s releases went in waves and my copy of L4D2 wasn’t activated until 0130. Since I had work today, I didn’t want to stay up too late, so I booted up a single player game (less chance of me continuing all night if there aren’t real people to guilt me into staying) and started in the first campaign, Dead Center. It’s been widely mentioned that there’s more of a narrative arc to this game and what I’ve seen so far seems to support that claim. There was no opening cutscene for the campaign, like I thought there might be, just the survivors all on the roof of a hotel watching a gunship leave them behind. With that, it was time to climb down to the ground floor of the hotel.
Unlike Left 4 Dead, the survivors start with next to nothing available to them. The opening weapons table contains only health, melee weapons, and a pistol. No submachine gun. No shotgun. In fact, this entire first campaign seems like it will be an exercise in absolute domination by the special infected. I think that the best move in this situation is probably to let the best marksman in the group dual-wield pistols by having the worst marksman sacrifice his pistol for a melee weapon.
The hotel plays out a little like the Mercy Hospital from the No Mercy campaign of L4D in that it’s littered with tons of rooms to explore and search for ordinance. There are some neat little easter eggs peppered throughout about the special infected, but not much beyond that, until things start to get real. Not content with letting the survivors calmly climb down to the ground floor, players are eventually forced to traverse the outer edge of the hotel by climbing through a window. The reason: fire. Somehow this hotel keeps catching fire in various places, conveniently blocking easy exits and forcing you onto ledges. I’m not sure how this will play out in versus, but it seems terribly unbalanced. A charger could easily knock guys off the edge, a jockey could ride them off, a smoker could pull one off, a hunter’s pounce could knock them off, or a boomer’s boom. Not to mention the tight spaces make the survivors easy bait for the spitter!
After finally spotting a working elevator, the survivors enter and introduce themselves. It’s kind of a neat moment and it shows how the whole narrative arc will play out (if I’m right). No cutscenes, just moments of calm where personalities will be expressed and fleshed out. Then I started to notice smoke creeping into the elevator…
That’s right, the entire bottom floor of the hotel is burning down. Escape is hindered by flames blocking paths and thick, suffocating smoke. I’m pretty sure the smoke does no damage, but it makes it almost impossible to see much of anything down there. It’s a special infected playground, provided they don’t set themselves alight. They’ll be murdering survivors like it’s their job.
The second map in Dead Center takes place in Savannah proper and has the survivors wandering through the city in the daylight, headed to a gun store that Ellis knows about. There’s a neat moment where Nick is a jerk and Coach tells him off and we’ve had our storytelling for the map. This level plays out a lot more like a traditional L4D level, but in the daylight. I suppose the increased visibility lowers the tension somewhat, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier. Witches wander in the daylight and AI partners are typically too dumb to leave them alone.
Broad daylight hurts the special infected more than anything for versus mode, so it seems that Valve compensated for this by creating tons of nooks, crannies, and tall buildings for the infected to ambush the survivors from. All that said, I still think this shifts the balance back in favor of the survivors after that first map. The gun store features plenty of tier 2 weapons to have some fun with and even a gun modification in the form of a laser sight. I’m pretty sure that these will randomize some, but it was a neat little thing to have with my burst-firing rifle. This is also where Valve is able to highlight their first “new” crescendo event. L4D had you mostly hunker down and defend against the horde until the craziness wound down. L4D2 makes you progress or the craziness will NEVER wind down. So call the horde I did and all to get soda for the guy who owned the gun shop so he would let me pass. Not the best motivation, but I guess it works ok.
The third map takes place within the aforementioned Center. Malls are a staple of the zombie repertoire, so it’s no surprise that Valve finally sent some survivors in to check things out. To recap: the first map seems horribly imbalanced in the special infected’s favor. The second feels pro-survivor, but the new crescendo events have the potential to end many a playthrough. This third level is definitely a special infected wonderland. Aside from a few spaces where a skylight shines in, the entire mall is pitch black. I’m pretty sure that a zombie could slowly follow you the whole way through and you’d never know it if he kept quiet about it.
Halfway through we found that we had set off a security alarm and had to climb to the third floor to turn it off. AI Director 2.0 must have been feeling particularly malicious, because she sent us a tank to help us get there stress free. Hoping that my buddies would survive long enough, I made a break for the room and was lucky enough to not get pounced along the way. As I made my way back, one of the computer-controlled players was dead, one was incapacitated, and the other was low on health. He was incapped soon after and I got pounced with a tank running right at me. Map over. Time for bed.
If there’s one thing I can tell you with certainty, it’s that Valve has not hit a sophomore slump with the L4D series. Dead Center is full of great new ideas and amazing refinements on the first game, which is a lot like NSMBW, when you think about it. Who would have thought that there were still so many good ideas left in both series to do such great work? The only complaint I have about the new campaign so far is that getting soda feels like an uninspired catalyst for a crescendo event, but I guess the apocalypse brings out the crazy in everyone.
More impressions as I actually play with people tonight. Maybe I’ll even try Realism mode.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out yesterday to the delight of many who missed old school Mario adventures and were looking for a chance to relive the fun of the old days with their family and friends. It also shipped with a 4-player mode that I’m convinced will end friendships, break up marriages, and devastate any other relationships you might have. Just one person acting like a jerk (hint: it was me) in the 3-player matches I played with Eric and Danielle was enough to have her swear off of the multiplayer modes, so imagine four people going nuts.
Oh, wait, you don’t even have to imagine. Watch the Giant Bomb crew go from 0 to pissed at each other as Ryan makes a mess of their attempts to get through the game for this quick look.
Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.
E3 is a magical time for video games. So much news happened in this past week that this is gonna be an epic post filled with tons of trailers and news. In no particular order, here it goes:
Look! A three-headed monkey!
First off we have the Monkey Island news again. Tales of Monkey Island will be debuting next month (!) on 7 July from Telltale Games. Yes, it’s super exciting…yes, Telltale has proven that they can have moderate success and timely release with episodic adventure games…but I don’t feel the humor of Ron Gilbert in the trailer.
I just hope the game is quality and we get to see a lot more MI.
Speaking of former Lucasarts comedic geniuses, Tim Schafer’s Brütal Legend (mind the umlaut) has had production suspended in what can only be known as a dick move by Activision. The litigious Activision dropped Brütal Legend not long ago when they merged with Vivendi and they claim it was because they never met milestones. Supposeedly they still retain the rights to release the game and will suffer “irreparable damages” for this.
My favorite part of the story, Tim Schafer’s response:
“Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it,” Schafer said. “Oh great, now Beyoncé is going to sue me too.”
Seriously Activision? You guys look like major tools. I already don’t play much anything by Activision and I just might consider this a permanent decision. It’s unbelievable.
Back in Black (and Red)
Nintendo will be selling the Wii in black starting this summer in Japan and the DSi in red at the same time. Not a bad idea, considering that sales of Nintendo systems have started to lag behind some of the Sony stuff. It’s just the kind of Nintendo thing to do in this situation.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is on the way! It will not feature online play =[
Left 8 Dead?
Left 4 Dead 2 is coming! A bit sooner than most expected, that’s for sure, but I think even Valve deserves to make some money every so often.
Melee weapons, incendiary ammo, new special infected, new AI Director sadism, new/updated weapons, and new survivors.
What’s more, you won’t be able to just camp for alarm moments, some won’t turn off unless you advance and complete tasks.
Nick reminds me of GOB. That makes me happy.
New MGS games announced. Rising will be on the PS3 and Xbox 360 and Peace Walker will be on the PSP. I’m kind of bummed about PW being a PSP game, since it focuses on Big Boss, but maybe I’ll end up asking for a PSP for Christmas or something.
Funny tidbit from the Nintendo conference
Jedis go Boom
It’s just the cinematic that opens the game, but it sure gets me excited for the release.
Some more The Beatles: Rock Band info.
Also: Final Fantasy XIV?
Tangled up in BlazBlue:
More Samus, No T or A
New Metroid game being made by Team Ninja?! Nintendo will probably keep the ridiculously large, bouncy boobs and thongs to a minimum, so calm down.
New Mario Galaxy game. 90% new levels, some old ones remixed.
As a corollary, no new Zelda or Pikmin games announced today. Maybe next time.
Fallout 3 DLC
Seriously, this game has been in development FOREVER.
Still looks good.
Coming to the DS is Golden Sun! The RPG is BACK! I hope this iteration is more interesting.
Social networking was the big theme of the conferences. From Facebook on DSi and Xbox 360 to Twitter making an appearance on the latter too, it seems like the next big thing.
Microsoft is also offering full games on demand on Live for real, non-MS point money.
All in all, a great conference. I know I missed some big news, but, hey, you’ve got the internet too, so quit being so damn lazy. Now if only we could rush to the fall and make these games come out already!