Monday, March 27, 2006

Bookshelf: My War

Last night I finished Colby Buzzell's My War: Killing Time In Iraq. In case you didn't know, Buzzell was the US infrantry soldier stationed in Iraq who got in the limelight via his popular blog, CBFTW ("Colby Buzzell, Fuck The War"). The book details Buzzell's experience in the army, in Iraq and how it all went down with his blog.

Buzzell is a pretty good writer. A lesser author's recount of the whole army experience would likely be really very boring. If you've watched the same war movies as I have, you already know most of the cliched experiences he goes through. The guy himself is a walking cliche. However, this is precisely what makes the book interesting. It's not how exotic and memorable his story is, it's the other way around. The war isn't some epic story he has to tell: it's just day to day stuff, starring very casual people. It appears that the war doesn't even change him to any noticeable degree.

Recommended light reading.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Second Sight

Sometimes you can tell that the studio was really into their project. You can tell that Free Radical was enthusiastic about Second Sight. The game just radiates a good feel right from the get-go. Mostly it's just that they've bothered to take on the details. The first impressions are carefully constructed - you're in the game's world from the second you see the main menu. As a good example, the typography is top-notch throughout.

I tend to find stealth games frustrating, as your awareness of your surroundings is always hampered by lackluster sensory input. Second Sight fares no better, yet it's so charming that I keep at it. The chief woe is the camera - it's not hopeless, but I find myself constantly toggling between the fixed angles and the controllable camera. The controllable cam keeps banging itself on the walls, which is why you don't want to use it all the time.

The game sports some excellent controls. Close combat is one-dimensional and doesn't feel like anything, but the shooting controls are awesome. They seem to be built around the idea of making the firefights feel good, not "realistic". Metal Gear series, take note! Especially sniping is a joy. You really feel like a kick-ass soldier, taking down the enemies with excellent auto-aim, finetuning your shots effortlessly and making the combat more tactical. Your auto-aim only works when you let it work by taking your time to (auto-) aim, keeping still and targeting only stationary enemies or ones moving towards you. So you can't just run around blindfolded and let the auto-aim do the work for you.

Your protagonist sports psychic powers. Of these the projection and telekinesis abilities are the most fun. It's really too cool to distract guards by throwing stuff around telekinetically - and later, throwing guards around telekinetically.

I've played plenty of "cinematic" games, but Second Sight uses cinematic techniques exceptionally. Scenes are short and to the point and they're full of cool set-pieces. For instance, games are now going all out on creating destroyable scenery. This must be technically challenging. Second Sight has featured a couple of instances where the pillars or walls used for cover by the combatants erode very convincingly under fire - and that's all I need! You get the effect, the experience, in a straightforward manner. Nevermind how complicated or all-encompassing (not very) the underlying system is.

Top that experience-centric approach with fun gameplay and you've got a winner. I'm maybe one third into the game, but unless things become dramatically worse, this one's definitely recommended.

Oh, and it's visually great, too. The framerate never drops below absolutely smooth. The characters are designed in a charismatic comic book manner, making them feel much more convincing than the "realistic" identikit characters usually seen in "serious" videogames.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Writely, meet DOA Ultimate

Google bought a small Silicon Valley company, Upstartle, which brought their service to the public eye. I hadn't heard about this before. I'm guessing Microsoft is cursing quite a bit right now. This steps clearly onto Microsoft Office's toes. Which makes one wonder why they haven't come up with an online solution like this.

I signed up for a Writely account immediately. Still, there's a nagging thought of how much of my information do I want Google to have? Up to now they've done a splendid job with it, though (613 MB of email and this blog).

In completely unrelated news, I played me some Dead Or Alive Ultimate at a friend's house the other night. I like DOA3 plenty, but Ultimate is so much better. The graphics are roughly the same quality; there's some trendy glow and some anti-aliasing and the arenas are more detailed, but that's about it.

However, the game system puts DOA3 to shame. No more cheap holds and throws. I managed to land something like one hold per three matches, whereas in DOA3 the one who attacks tends to be the one to lose, due to the easy holds. It's a fundamentally better experience now. An obligatory purchase for my Xbox shelf.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Star Wars Republic Commando and a bunch of lesser games

A local supermarket was selling a bunch games for 5-15€. We bought eight of them. I haven't had time to sample them all yet (Second Sight and Knights Of The Old Republic II remain unopened) , but here are my first impressions on the lot I did get to try out already.

Conan, Spider-Man, Judge Dredd: disappointments to a varying degree. I was intrigued by all of these due to reviews in the usually very dependable Finnish magazine Pelit. We got the Gamecube versions. It should be noted that I was very consciously buying B-grade games. "Not great" can still be fun.

Conan (crappy official site, my apologies) opens strongly and I don't mind the basic graphics, but movement is clumsy and the camera can be a pain. The combat is all right, though, and the theme works well. If it weren't for Conan, I likely wouldn't play this much more, as there are vastly better third person action adventures available. My expectations weren't high, though, and as a "Conan game" it's okay.

It's cool that when you die, you appease your god Crom by dispatching a few enemies in the afterlife and then come back, all without using a "load game" spell.

Spider-Man I've played for a couple of hours. I was rather surprised by how difficult the game is: I couldn't get past level three or something on the normal difficulty, actually losing my nerve completely by how unfair the game was. (I never found Ninja Gaiden too difficult.) Going at it again on "easy", things were much more enjoyable. The camera is something of a plague and combat doesn't feel like much fun. But zooming and swinging around the levels using webbing is plenty of fun! It just that you're often pushed into tight confines, where the game is at its worst. But flying around as the Spider-Man is very much a childhood dream come true. Still, I was expecting much better camera, walking controls and combat. Maybe I mixed this with up the sequel, which got better reviews... oh well.

Judge Dredd - Dredd Vs. Death (I don't quite agree with the Eurogamer review, but it's the only decent link I can find) is a decidedly sub-par first person shooter, which so far seems to be remedied by a very strong licence. The shooting is dumb, the graphics are... disappointing, but it really does feel good to lay down the law as a fascist cop. There aren't too many games which give you the chance! You get to arrest unarmed civilians (smoking in public, holding a demonstration, spraypainting walls, that sort of thing) and blow up armed ones, along with fighting all sorts of mutants. They say the story and gameplay does pick up later, but for now, I'm content with a flawed version of being in Dredd's boots. Flawed Dredd is better than no Dredd. (Whoah, Dredd is a year older than I am!)

Then there's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. The last game in the series I've played, Tony Hawk's Underground, was a disappointment, although it seems I'm pretty alone with that opinion. I just didn't get excited about completing the moronic "story" missions, complete with missions requiring the use of the worst driving model in the history of videogaming.

Instalment #4 (being Underground's predecessor) is a superior game, at least based on how much more fun it's been so far, and I'm only in the first stage. The challenges are more worthy. Then again, if Horse is all the Tony Hawk's series is good for, I guess it doesn't matter which version you're going to play. But I'd appreciate it if the single player experience was worthwile, too.

As for the title in the post's subject line, Star Wars Republic Commando blew me away. It got mixed reviews when it came out and I can see where the less than eager reviews are coming from. But whereas Dredd is saved by the licence, Republic Commando is lifted to "awesome" from "okay". Without the licence, this would be an adequate squad-based shooter with seriously underpowered weapons. But integrated tightly with the Star Wars licence, the game becomes an engaging foray into the Star Wars sidelines. There's not a light saber to be seen, yet you're thoroughly inside the world. The game's opening is perhaps the best I've seen to date.

The game's been critiqued for how the teamwork is just tack-on. Yes, it's all done via hotspots, but those are in-game hotspots your hi-tech armor is pointing out to you. And it's not just for flavor: your squad functions much better when they're commanded. Yes, it's all artificial, but it works. The game does stutter a bit graphically, though, but the audio is top-notch and the commandos themselves are cool. Special kudos for the revival system, which makes the game over screen a rare sight. The constant bacta fills are a little ridiculous, though. (I mean, a bacta tank in every room? Come on.)

It's weird but cool that the best Star Wars moments are not in the movies at all - no, they're the videogames Knights Of The Old Republic - and now Republic Commando - and the animated series Clone Wars. Hell, I enjoyed my Star Wars pen and paper rpg campaign much more than the Episodes I-III. Oh, and I'm still looking forward to Lego Star Wars.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Rifts, Pathway To Glory, D&D Online

My N-Gage hasn't seen much gaming. Last evening I checked out the demo versions of Rifts: Promise Of Power and Pathway To Glory, the platform's famed "single good game". They've both been very good.

Pathway's production values and the level of general presentation are so high that you really forget that you're playing the game on a phone's tiny screen. Pathway feels like it's pretty much the best tactical game I've played, ever. I must see if I can secure myself a full copy from somewhere. I was delighted to have my squad wiped out in a few rounds on my first go!

Rifts is very much like the numerous Japanese "tactical rpgs" that are popular on the numerous Gameboy formats. It sports fine graphics, likeable audio, pretty well-written dialogue and an interesting world. You control an adventurer in real-time, from an isometric perspective, and fight your opponents, taking turns to do so.

I was delighted to notice that the designers have decided to retain much of the original game's overly complex themes and game system. It really does feel like Rifts. Also, it was refreshing to see that you have to work to get your first level of experience. I don't understand the Japanese method of piling XP levels on the player after every couple of fights - they just don't feel like they're worth anything, when you don't have to put up an effort in order to get them.

The original Rifts pen and paper rpg is a hopeless mish-mash of styles and themes, coupled with a train wreck of a game system. (It's got lots of fans, though, so they must be doing something right. For the rest of us, I've got one word: Splugorth!) I was very curious to see it licenced as a videogame, but hats off to the team for making it worth the trouble.

Dungeons & Dragons Online was launched. Apparently they've made D&D into a proper videogame. By the first reviews it seems that they haven't dumbed down the mechanics and that combat (of which there is plenty to go around) requires some skill on behalf of the player, requiring him to dodge and block in addition to merely clicking away at the foes รก la traditional net roleplaying games (Anarchy Online, World Of Warcraft, what have you).

The game also requires you to function as a party and most of the quest content are proper dungeons. Most of the stuff one might like in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, edition 3.5, seems to be included. All of this is very cool. While there's still apparently no player-driven narrative or any of the other stuff that I'm really looking forward to in a net rpg, the proper implementation of the D&D ethos in digital form is really a welcome thing in itself.

The one thing I would miss, though, is a 20-sided die.