The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

A new Polish studio, The Astronauts, was formed by some of the People Can Fly team (of Bulletstorm fame). Their new game is anything but a mega-blockbuster. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is more like an interactive story, which is fitting because it is an homage to early twentieth-century weird fiction (with shout outs to such authors as HP Lovecraft and HG Wells).

First of note is the game’s beauty. Red Creek Valley is a large open world space but remains intimate – it is essentially a family estate next to a dam and train station. The lush forests, mountain peaks, and lake views are stunning. The game’s music is atmospheric and it is an experience to simply wander around.

The Vanishing is a short game, only a few hours or so, and there are 10 independent quests. 5 are murder mysteries and 5 are individual story puzzles. This is poignant, because Ethan is a young storyteller with a troubled family. It becomes clear that he uses his imagination to escape his dreary life. What’s interesting is these 5 mysteries and 5 tales of weird fiction are each based on one of his 5 family members. The interplay of these relationships and the symbolism therein is the crux of The Vanishing. Countless fan theories range from the obvious to the ridiculous.

On the design front, the world is built well. It interconnects with itself and folds back into familiar territory (for example, a vista showing a house at the foot of a dam is later revisited at ground level). Gameplay design, however, is a bit less intuitive. The intro warns that The Vanishing does NOT hold the player’s hands, and it doesn’t. At the start, I didn’t know what to do or even know much about the story. I simply emerged from a tunnel and knew that I was on a quest to find a missing boy. This game is mostly discover-as-you-go.

Which is fine, but… I have a small bone to pick with the open nature of the story. Many of the sections can be completed in any order. This is fine in some cases but the lack of direction in the beginning damaged my experience. I stumbled through the world not knowing what to do and bored because nothing was happening. Out of 10 puzzles, I didn’t even notice that I was supposed to be solving a self-contained challenge until the 4th one. I needed to consult a walkthrough to realize that some areas had their own activities that could be solved while remaining within that area. Once I understood this dynamic, I played through the game on my own, but a little "hand holding" at the very beginning would have trained the gameplay mechanics better. I’m all for non-linear experiences, but having a set beginning or initial challenge would not be a bad thing.

The Ending

After a beautiful experience like The Vanishing, what’s the easiest way to divide the fans? The ending, of course. Needless to say, do not read on unless you want spoilers.

Some people refer to the ending as a "twist" (even the developer does). I don’t consider it a twist. The entire story plays with the idea of imagination and the supernatural – what’s reality and fantasy – so to me, the ending isn’t a twist so much as a reveal. The player knows something is up, they just don’t necessarily know what.

However, the aspect of the ending that is most divisive is its ambiguity. Numerous interpretations exist, and this Russian blog does a great job breaking things down, but the fact is that the simplest interpretation waves off most of the plot. The most logical explanation has no supernatural element to it at all, and plays out like tragic stories in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth. However, there is a very similar but supernatural explanation, and that is centered on who you believe the protagonist is: either Ethan’s imagination or his ghost.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, for whatever it is, is a very different game, and one that gives you as much as you put into it. If you dismiss it quickly, it only offers a straightforward mystery, but if you peel away the story layers like an onion, you find more and more.

For twenty bucks, you can’t go wrong with that.

Thief Reboot

One of the PC games that most captured my imagination is Thief: The Dark Project. I’ve been playing Dishonored recently and immediately noticed the similarities (in a good way) to the old series. With word of a reboot coming next year, this teaser is all we get for now.

Diehards will complain of Garrett being voice-acted by a newcomer but this is a new game in a new age. I’m too old, as is the series, to bitch about things like that. While The Metal Age was a follow-up by the original Looking Glass Studios, Dark Shadows was developed by Ion Storm and turned out surprisingly well. I don’t think Eidos Montreal is a bad candidate for making a respectable reboot.

At least there’s fan service at the end: Garrett still has a fake eye.

The Walking Dead

This article is about the 2012 videogame. For other uses, see The Walking Dead (disambiguation).

The Walking Dead is a funny title. On one hand, I didn’t expect much. It was created by little known episodic game developer Telltale and is based on a flavor of the month property with quick time event-y gameplay. At the same time, the game has a cool art style, is focused more on dialog than action, and has a good story and excellent voice-acting. So where do all these dominoes fall?

Let’s start with the most significant effort put into this game. The Walking Dead emulates a tv show and pulls off its 5 individual episodes nicely. The story is well-paced and contains a bunch of characters, all with their individual quirks and annoyances. The emotional beats are well complemented with driving, sad music, and the world feels believable and tragic because of it. These qualities alone make the game a success, and all the awards and financial gains are, I believe, well deserved. Doing something fresh in this industry is a big deal, and even Valve couldn’t pull off the episodic thing.

However, there is a decent counter-point to all these praises. The story, while well scripted and much better than most videogames, is basically just a rehash of The Road. A grown man watches over a little kid in a post apocalyptic world, they run into bandits, they run into cannibals, and as sick as the man gets his entire goal is to protect the one innocent thing around him. There are more parallels but you get the idea. If this was a movie it would receive the same criticism more publically, but in general people are plenty happy with the mature subject matter because ‘this is just a videogame.’ So while I don’t think The Walking Dead is setting back games as a medium, it is still just playing catch-up to cinema instead of doing something truly unique.

There are other small problems, and since it’s easier to fill a page with negativity than praise, I’ll take a couple more paragraphs to explain. The characters aren’t quite as consistent as I would like. The ‘best friend’ is heroic at first, then turns cowardly and useless, then turns heroic again. The conversations are often disjointed and there were times when a reference to a previous event was said in a generic fashion as if to avoid the trouble of recording separate lines to reflect what specifically happened. And while it should be obvious that this is a game for those interested mainly in story, the gameplay and controls of some sections are certainly lacking. This is not a deal-breaker and is to some extent excusable for this type of game, but Telltale could’ve done a better job.

This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.

But with all the nitpicks about The Walking Dead, the ultimate criticism must come down to the meaning of choice. In a tight narrative, story branches are a big problem. Often the illusion of choice is better than actual game changing events. But if the player sees behind the curtain- if it is obvious that pressing X or A or B all end with the same result- then the idea of interactive fictions breaks down. Early portions of the game had moments where one character or another could die but the end game still played out the same. I would’ve hoped that, with all the reminders about how the game "adapts to my choices", that I could’ve created more diversity with my inputs.

All of that said, in the end The Walking Dead is a great thing for this industry. It’s a surprise hit that feels very different even from other quick-time games like Heavy Rain. It is supposed to give you the experience of ‘playing a tv show’ and the amount of time and thought commitment nail it. There’s some dark humor, there’s some tragedy, and there’s a whole lot of entertainment.

Ingress

So Google made an Android game. The thing everybody wants to know is, what’s the deal?

Ingress is a game mapped to the real world, very literally using Google Maps and GPS data. The kick is that there’s a cool future tech theme. The world is changing, a new energy is discovered converging on specific locations, and you can either fight for it or against it. In a very real way you are pitted against another team of cell phone users as you try to slowly gain dominance in various regions of the real world. While some claim this is an augmented reality game, don’t be fooled- there is no camera or real world data being overlayed on, just a digital map reflecting the real world.

I’ve tried playing Ingress for a bit and it’s honestly not all that fun. You are just supposed to go find portals and weaken them if they belong to enemies or strengthen them if they are yours. Simple tasks that you can do with a couple minutes of downtime while hanging out. But challenging and complex mechanics aren’t the main draw. Ingress is about exploration. You need to physically go to city landmarks to play. A lot of the fun is the adventure of getting outside and going places while staying very light on the side of a video game.

So this is like Foursquare, right? The answer is: kinda. But Ingress is a well polished game with at least enough fiction in place to explain the premise and make it feel like you are fighting an invisible war. The integration of the mapping software is neat and you will feel like you are using an interface from a sci-fi movie. Unfortunately, the chat feature is clunky and hard to use. People around me are talking but I’m not quite sure about what and I can’t chat with them for some reason.

The main problem with the game is its opacity. After the tutorial I didn’t know what to do and had to google "How do I play Ingress?". You more or less need to check a web map to discover locations to go to ( http://www.ingress.com/intel ) and as far as I can tell this is the only place the chat works at.

Moving on, the *business* of what’s going on here is interesting. Google is openly collecting data, but to what end? Speculation mostly hedges around mapping pedestrian walking routes but others extend the theory to wifi usage and other data. I have a feeling there’s something else going on here.

Web advertising is about bringing people from one page to another. An Amazon link takes you to a web site where you can spend money, so Amazon pays sites that give them traffic. What if Ingress was a way to direct not web traffic, but physical traffic? Think about it- real, actual people going to storefronts and areas of interest. If Google could prove to companies that they can get visitors through their doors, how much would that be worth?

Race in Games

Seeing as how I’ve worked in Ye Olde Games Industry for a while (as an indie before the scene existed and since as a AAA developer), I’ve been wanting to post more about the state of the industry rather than just reviewing a small selection of games. There are a great many debates to enter into, however, so I didn’t really know where to start but I slowly noticed a pattern as I read the introduction to Game Developer magazine every month. Brandon Sheffield, the editor-in-chief, would chime in on the current hot debate with somewhat predictable wisdom and I would vehemently disagree. As a dedicated contrarian and counter culture advocate I felt the need to vent.

In an article titled The Predictable Protagonist: Embracing Diversity in Interactive Entertainment, Sheffield tackles the problem of many player characters in video games being white heterosexual males. Whether this is a real problem or not is certainly part of the debate but let’s first focus on what the stated issue is.

“[The games industry] diversity is definitely weak, both within studios and in our game characters.”

The first half of this problem is that game studios (presumably US based, more on that later) are overrepresented by white males. Sheffield goes on to say that he doesn’t mean to call for affirmative action but then quickly drops the particular point and doesn’t address it again. So we are left with the premise that not enough minority students are getting art and engineering degrees and joining the industry.

As a whole this is a tough problem to fix and the onus certainly isn’t on the game developers. With the rise of gaming specialized degrees literally everywhere and the saturation of gaming enabled devices in everyday life, I suspect this issue will start to work itself out. But this is a change that will take time.

I am less concerned with the current snapshot of society than with actual opportunity. What I mean by this is, as long as minorities are able to secure jobs in the games industry and are not unfairly discriminated against, their actual representation in the industry is less important. As an example, consider that in 1997 blacks represented 79% of NBA rosters (several other sources claim 70%-80% over the last decade). Is there a societal problem that other races are underrepresented according to their Census statistics? I would say no, that the interest and participation of the various races in various professions is somewhat irrelevant. What is key is that diversity is not discouraged. My studio of 200+ is fairly internationally and racially diverse despite being dominated by white males. This is a demographic that I have seen changing over the years at my workplace alone which I consider a good thing.

So we are now left with the main thrust of Sheffield’s forward, where he focuses on the problem of game characters being too white.

“USC researcher Dmitri Williams looked into ethnic portrayals in games, using the bestselling titles from 2006-2007. They sampled 150 games, recording a half hour of gameplay from each, logging the ethnic makeup of every character they came across, for a total of 8,500. They compared this data with that of the U.S. Census.

What they found was that white characters were overrepresented by 7%, and Asians were overrepresented by 26%, while black characters were underrepresented by 13%, Hispanics by 78%, Native Americans by 90%, and biracial characters by 42%.”

Before getting into the numbers of a scientific study I like to examine the methodology. The fact that the games sampled were not US-only games but they were compared to US Census statistics is immediate cause for concern. This is comparing apples to oranges and has no material meaning.

Disregarding the sloppy comparison and looking to the numbers, white people are only overrepresented by 7%?!? That is not bad, especially considering that popular countries not named the United States that develop and purchase games include Canada and assorted European nations. The numbers are vague but suggest that these countries have a larger white population than we do.

There are other minor quibbles. Native Americans only make up 1% of the United States population so any mismatches in percentage will be pronounced- if that means 1 in 200 games have a Native American instead of 1 in 100, is that really a big deal? Wouldn’t the fact that there were only 150 games tested skew this specific result? And I don’t even want to ask how the researchers attempted to identify biracial characters in games but, needless to say, it is a little bit more difficult when participants aren’t explicitly asked what ethnicities they belong to (unfair advantage: Census).

It appears the USC researcher’s conclusion, that "the in-game representations didn’t match the U.S. population [but] did match the ethnic makeup of the IGDA”, was more of a curiosity rather than a meaningful observation. Still, after picking apart Williams’ study, I tend to agree with Sheffield’s take-away.

“So, it seems, we make characters that look like us, not like our players.”

Ignoring the inconsistencies in methodology and the absence of any true statistics of game player ethnicities, I wouldn’t be surprised if this statement was at least partially true. Korean movies are probably dominated by Korean actors but it is difficult to determine if this is a function of the movie watchers or the movie creators. However, when dealing with a dominant US market that exports to much of the world, this will be a difficult imbalance to avoid.

But the question truly raised by this analysis is whether or not this is wrong. Are game developers required to tell multicultural Family Circus style stories? Are game developers irresponsible or racist if they don’t? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. To Brandon Sheffield’s credit, he stops short of making these accusations. But he does end with an unfortunate analogy.

“Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar, and others have done great work to bring other viewpoints into the public sphere through entertainment. With our interactive medium, couldn’t we do better?”

Whether one agrees with the endorsement of ‘great’ or not, it is true that these filmmakers have been successful in their craft without overreliance on white males. But is this something they should be lauded for? Aren’t black and Spanish directors making movies about black and Spanish people the same thing as white males making video games about white males? Isn’t this the behavior previously admonished?

To come full circle, I believe the demographics of video game creators and video game content are already changing. If a snapshot of both categories today are mostly white and Asian overrepresented, I don’t see that as a problem. Shouldn’t art be a reflection of the artist? Isn’t music that panders to an audience relegated to ‘pop’ status? I’m not asserting that I only want to read about white people doing white things. Diversity is great. But do we need a call to arms for not mapping to the latest Census data properly? I think that’s criticism for criticism’s sake.

Batman: Arkham City

To cut to the chase, Arkham City is very similar to Arkham Asylum, which you may recall my praising as the best game of the year. That said, I’ll mostly focus on how the sequel is different and in many ways not as great of an experience as the first. For one, it felt short – I beat the game plus the bonus Catwoman content and still only have 50% marked complete. This makes the game feel made up of less story elements and more Riddler filler (Granted, the new side quests are better and more interesting filler than pure collectables).

It seems a simple formula. I couldn’t get enough of the riddles in the first game so it would go to figure that a whole bunch more could be stuffed in, and even more variety could be given to them. However, the Riddler collectables are not as nice in the sequel. The world is bigger and the number of collectables is daunting. Before you think I’m simply complaining about extra content, know that it is less convenient as well. Going into the menu doesn’t start you in the zone’s collectable screen. In the first game you can think, "What do I need to collect in this area" and open the menu and you will see a list of what remains. In Arkham City, you need to manually navigate to the proper submenu to find a less readable screen. The problem is that players don’t know what arbitrary borders are placed on the open world zones and don’t even know which submenu to look at. Then there are a number of “Augmented Reality” gliding segments that are impossibly frustrating to complete. And it’s cool that the riddles have their own puzzles before they can be collected, or that some can only be picked up by first switching to Catwoman, but this time around it has become a real drag. Essentially, hunting riddles feels like more work than it should.

And who’s idea was it to make the Riddler sound like Max Headroom? His dialog already existed fine in the first game without the cheap stuttering effect.

The open world is different but never gets very crazy. I’ve had some people tell me that they don’t think Arkham City benefits too much from the open world gameplay, and I can agree that it isn’t needed and the first game in fact excelled without it, but I don’t think it hurt too much. It retains the feel of the original most ways but just exists on a much larger scale. However, the abundance of side-quests and chatter on the radio in Arkham City are annoying at first and take some getting used to. Often you are being told to do multiple things at once and it can get overwhelming, but it is never that bad of a game breaker.

Arkham City attempts to do everything the original game did but better, deeper, and in greater number. For this bulletpoint I need to admit that they mostly succeeded in this goal. All the gadgets from the first are back but more get added into the mix. The brawler and stealth combat sections feel very similar to begin with but multiple layers of complexity are slowly introduced. Adding prioritization of enemies like body armor or leaving a specific guy for last so he can be interrogated surprisingly makes the combat more interesting and more difficult. Even Batman’s basic traversal moves like gliding and ziplining have new mechanics built on top of them.

As a story guy, one of the biggest disappointments of this sequel is that the plot elements that move you from one mission to the next are horribly done. Too many villains are shoehorned into a tiny story without enough motivation for being around (I think one of the developers was quoted as saying there were 5 times as many characters in this iteration). For all the advertising presence she had, Catwoman’s character is fairly unimportant and feels tacked on. In a huge surprise, Robin actually shows up, only to have a 1 minute conversation with Batman one time in the entire game and then disappear. I really don’t know what the point of it was. He seriously is like, “Hey Batman, I wanna help.” and the Dark Knight is like, “I don’t need you.” and then Robin jets. I’m just not really sure what the plot was going for.

I sure hope this marketing image doesn’t convey a complex back and forth between these two characters!

It’s a shame because the A story of Hugo Strange wanting to save Arkham is serviceable and his plot twist is enough to keep things interesting. What’s more, the ending with Joker is a great (if not inspired) touch. But all the little, "Ok, go here now" moments are poorly scripted. Catwoman has a whole moment of self reflection over saving Batman, the result of which consists of simply picking up a piece of concrete that was pinning Batman down. Joker enlists Batman’s aid at one point but his thugs continue to attack you anyway. There is a Mad Hatter sequence that comes out of nowhere, feels unfinished and thrown in there, and ends abruptly. All throughout there are many, many inconsistencies in character motivation and behavior that keeps the entire experience from feeling cohesive.

I will say that the boss fights have mostly improved, if for variety if nothing else. The first game only had a couple different boss fights and kept spinning the gameplay gimmick to keep things fresh, but Arkham City straight up spent more time to have different combat mechanics. Fighting Mr. Freeze is a real treat and a challenge since he learns from your attacks and you need to keep adjusting your strategy to take him down. But again, the reason for that fight is meaningless. One second he is helping you, then the boss fight happens, then he is helping you again. The lack of proper motivation for all the characters makes everything feel misplaced or carelessly thrown in.

Anyway, I fully admit that I am mostly nitpicking here. As with the mantra of WIHE, I am disappointed that Arkham City didn’t reach near its full potential; developer Rocksteady made a lot of small mistakes in my mind but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it was also a damn fun game. I still very much recommend the purchase- I just feel like the classic sequelitis trap of adding too many new villains or features or tech perhaps changed too much of what was almost already a perfect formula.

DRM

What do you think about a single player game that requires you to be online every second that you play it? Pure vitriol, if internet message boards and comments are any indication. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a wildly unpopular idea and yet another front on the war between freedom and security. In the real world at airports we fight terrorism but in the digital world piracy is the enemy. Still, the laments are the same- security measures are an inconvenience that often get in the way of the experience they exist to protect.

In the grand scheme of things media rights are a fairly trivial aspect of security and it comes easy for users to slam the need for it. I personally wouldn’t buy music with DRM and avoided iTunes because of it. Why would I buy controlled music when my entire previous collection was uncontrolled? Why would I give up that freedom?

It has taken some time but games have finally surged ahead in this realm. Valve launched Steam, a storefront to hold your game collection. It wasn’t hard to hide from people the fact that it was a DRM application but Steam offered enough perks that it actually enhanced the experience rather than destroyed it. You can buy a game and play it on PC and PS3, you can install the game on multiple machines, or delete it and always have a backup in the cloud. And you could certainly still play the games offline.

This is where the new trend of always on DRM emerges. Ubisoft has released many PC games that require an internet connection to play and there have been many complaints and calls for boycott. None of the detractors have stopped the company from claiming that their solution has successfully reduced the amount of piracy they suffered. And so, despite being popularly reviled, their business plan continues.

And this leads us to Blizzard and Diablo 3. Previous versions of the game have allowed you to have separate games for online and offline play, but no more. Diablo 3 forces a single game type, for the “convenience” of the player, that always requires an internet connection. It is obvious that this simplifies the experience for the player and the development of the game, and honestly, I will be playing this game online with friends a lot of the time. It is also clear that this is DRM to prevent piracy and will inconvenience players who can’t be constantly connected or who have a router that resets itself every night. But what I think is slipping past most people is the online auction house.

Blizzard is including a real money auction house for items in Diablo 3. Remember previous games where you had to hunt and work for items? Well this time around you can just go to the store and buy them. This is an outrage to some people as is but i’m not really opposed to the concept of microtransactions on face value. However, I’m of the mind that the reason Blizzard always wants you to be online is so you can partake in the auction house. You can’t buy gear if you aren’t online after all. And think about the item economy. If you could play offline and save locally, you could hack the save files and get free items. This obviously doesn’t work when you can easily sell these items for real money, endorsed by Blizzard. Of course there would still be the limitation of not allowing SP and MP items to mix, but what happens when you buy an item in SP – should that extend to MP as well? Shouldn’t it because you paid for it?

These are all problems that have solutions, but Blizzard is solving an awful lot of their problems by forcing you to be online all the time, and they are leaning heavily on their online World of Warcraft expertise. This is a case where I actually think piracy isn’t the driving concern of requiring an internet connection. Don’t be fooled by Blizzard’s claims that they are not planning on making money off the auction house and just expect it to cover server costs. That’s laughable. And dishonest.

So when it comes down to it, is Blizzard doing anything wrong? They are following the rule of popular DRM in that it will offer the users more features than if it didn’t exist. They are vastly simplifying item management and relying on existing technology by using their Wold of Warcraft (always on) knowledge. As a developer myself I need to respect those points. I’m sad to say it but I don’t think this move bothers me a whole lot and I only see the industry moving towards this model more in the future. Soon we will see ads, like on web pages, in digital storefronts like Blizzard’s auction house. Games are becoming more connected to the web and social media and marketplaces that soon enough the line will be so blurred that we will forget what we were complaining about here. The golden rule will, as always, be to make sure the game itself does not suffer.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

Besides having the most awful title I can think of, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a charming iPad game in many ways. It is an anachronistic blend of classic medieval adventure, pixel graphics and modchip music, rock and records. This marriage of strange yet stylistic makes it the current darling of indie iPad games. However, special attention by definition comes with turning a blind eye to certain faults, and who am I if not one to set the record straight?

I am surprised that I have not yet written a post on Video Game “Media” but there is a certain IGN review that blatantly makes my entire case for me. Here’s the formula when reviewing a hit: Find a game that has something interesting or cool about it, talk it up until it can not possibly live up to the written hype, completely disregard its glaring faults, and anoint the title as ‘near-perfect’.

This review in particular emphasizes how Sword & Sworcery is so beautiful and different and points out the clever puzzles and good music. I would agree that the music and art fit well together and serve to create a dreamy atmosphere. The 8 bit pixel art is endearing but it does have its drawbacks – I didn’t know my avatar was a girl until about a third of the way through the game. And as far as the gameplay, there are barely any puzzles at all. If you consider tapping on random places on the screen a challenge then you may be in for a treat but for the rest of us the word puzzle implies some form of mental exercise. If I am required to touch the 3 owls or the four tree trunks onscreen then I would hardly regard this as a puzzle, much less award it the distinction of ‘clever’. Then there were the times when I was left tapping and sliding my finger to no avail, unsure of what to do, until I randomly succeeded, somehow more in the dark than I was before.

Not only does IGN ignore its faults, but it almost finds them quaint, as if they were part of the appeal. Next to complaints of “obtuse puzzles” that required random tapping on the screen to having to annoyingly rotate the iPad is a review score of 9.5. Somehow a few paragraphs of faults still results in an amazing game.

To be fair, the game’s creators refer to the app as more of an experience and an experiment but this leaves them stranded in a sort of visionary limbo. Unsure of what their focus is, they simply strap on the term experimental and all is forgiven. And when you consider that this small indie team didn’t really understand what they were doing their lack of experience becomes all too clear. The movement controls are not refined and sometimes completely unresponsive despite the necessity to run away from an enemy. Your goals are unclear at times and you find yourself trodding back and forth through the same areas hoping for a clue that doesn’t exist. You can survive a long boss fight with a lot of life left only to find that its final surprise attack is a one hit kill that forces you to redo the entire sequence again. Text in the game is often long-winded and irrelevant, and despite you having an in-game tome to record important information you can find yourselves in the same boring conversation again and again if you accidentally tap the same character again looking for new information. Ironically enough, even the tome of important information is mostly filled with dribble. And for a title so concerned with atmosphere and experience, you are often bombarded with “Tweet this” links when you see text tags in the game. I’m not sure why I would want to tweet a line of dialog but the constant marketing pushes are aggravating.

Now for the coup de grace. At one point in Sword & Sworcery you are tasked with collecting 3 pieces of an artifact. After the first one is acquired you may have a difficult time finding the other two. This is because one can only be unlocked during a real life full moon and the other during a new moon. For a game that only takes a few hours to beat, asking a player to wait two weeks is ludicrous, not to mention the hour or so that I walked around the level looking for something, anything to do. Hey, it’s cool that the moon in the game mirrors the moon in real life and if this was an MMO that people played for months and years then this type of thing may be acceptable but in this context I am left bewildered. If changing the date on my iPad didn’t work then I never would have completed this ‘experience’.

After all the negativity I do need to concede that Sword & Sworcery is a novel game and I’d recommend that people try it except the $5 price tag is a bit steep for the iPad indie game market. The music is great and the game doesn’t lack for style at least, but as a professional game developer this team made so many rookie mistakes that it turned my stomach.

Dead Island Trailer

Keeping in mind that this has no bearing on the actual game, this trailer for Dead Island is probably one of the best video game trailers in recent memory. It is no accident that movies and games are colliding when it comes to marketing.

The problem I have is that I doubt the game can create this type of emotional response. Not that I think the ad is deceiving in any way. I’ve always said the best commercial is one that sells the *idea* of the game rather than the game itself. When you only have 30 seconds to reach an audience, the seed of an idea is much more powerful than any bulletpoint list or gameplay footage. Get a player excited about the concept and the rest will sort itself out if the game is any good at all.

And here’s a bonus for those who want to see a fan remix of the trailer in a mostly chronological sequence.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Hypothetical question: You are Activision, the last two Call of Duty games by Infinity Ward sold like shit busters, Treyarch has a CoD release scheduled- what do you do? I said ‘hypothetical’ for a reason, because the answer is undeniable – imitate like you’ve never imitated before. So after all the marketing and hype, and being familiar with the Modern Warfare pedigree, how does Call of Duty: Black Ops measure up?

Well I will say this, they knew what game they were copying. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t there. The storytelling is nowhere near as good. The objectives are confusing and the levels jump around without the proper buildup. The animated sequences abound but they are jerkier than their Modern Warfare counterparts and lack the proper pacing. Let’s look into some notable points.

Level Design
The sequences in Black Ops are generally confusing. It is difficult to get a sense of purpose and the levels seem to come to a close without the proper expectation. The game jumps all over the place without giving the player a beat to digest what is going on. What results is an impulse to follow an objective marker on screen rather than worry about the fiction of your goals. A few segments feel out of place, some are suspiciously short, and ultimately it is hard to feel a sense of accomplishment because moments are not in relatable contexts.

Gameplay
The gunplay is not as good as it is in Modern Warfare. Either enemies need too many bullets to go down or you miss a lot, and it’s hard to tell from the death animations if they are dead or not. This means you often get shot at by guys you thought you took care of already and need to refocus your attention on them again. Autoaim when zooming sometimes works 100% like MW and sometimes doesn’t seem to work at all. I can respect if Treyarch tried to make aiming more of a skill instead of an auto lock but the feature needs to be consistent otherwise I am gonna try the auto aim and be frustrated when it fails. Overall there was less polish and attention to detail and it showed. I do, however, give them props for making a swimming mechanic and actually using it in a themed level.

Marketing
This is an area where Black Ops excelled.  A heavy dose of hype and awareness with the Call of Duty brand resulted in a game that outsold even Modern Warfare 2. It is hard to fault a record breaker. Still, a lot of money was poured into this game and the question remains – was it well spent?

Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, and Ice Cube all did significant voice work but I didn’t hear about any of this in the advertising. For the money these Hollywood actors cost I have to admit that I didn’t notice exceptional voice acting. Kind of goes to show the focus was on being big but I wonder if they were a good return on investment.

Then we have the strange tie-ins. Honestly, the Black Ops sunglasses don’t really bother me. But let me introduce perhaps the most ridiculous video game marketing tie-in ever: The Jeep Wrangler Call of Duty Black Ops Edition.

Srsly.

Animation
What makes the Modern Warfare series stand out are the first person cinema scenes that are seamlessly speckled about the gameplay. Black Ops has its share of these sequences but they are not animated as well and do not read as clearly. What’s more, instead of usually giving slight camera control to look around a bit and remain pseudo-interactive this game usually goes the route of not letting you do anything at all. It is clear that this is a skill Treyarch is not as proficient in.

Music
Black Ops highlights events between 1961 and 1968 in locales such as Cuba, Vietnam, and Russia. There are a lot of opportunities for period music and indeed Fortunate Son, Sympathy for the Devil, and even a Celia Cruz song make an appearance. But the remainder (and majority) of music throughout the levels are a horrible blend of techno-rock loops that do not invoke the 60s at all. I understand that it’s almost a joke for movies set in Vietnam to feature tracks from the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix so Treyarch didn’t have a lot to work with, but they could have tried to make it fit together. At least make some attempt to score music that doesn’t feel out of place in the experience. When the ending credits roll and Eminem starts blasting, I think it’s safe to say that marketing got the better of the creative team.

Overall everything about this game feels like a bad Modern Warfare rip-off. Admittedly, it is still above the level of many first person shooters and I am being harder on Black Ops than perhaps I should be, but with a monster budget and two great games as templates I felt let down. Call of Duty: Black Ops lacks any edginess or standout appeal to make it a true favorite that will be talked about on merits other than sales numbers. CoDBlOps is however the single best game acronym ever, so there’s that.

Also, I forgot to make fun of “Press R1 to Torture.”