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Guild Wars 2: Gravelings Broke My Pants

I recently reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. This marks the first time I’ve ever reached the level cap in an MMO. For the most part, it’s a very finely crafted game that can appeal to many different people. There’s exploration, fast-paced and aesthetically appealing combat, structured PvP, unstructured PvP, piles of interesting lore, and the whole world is beautiful and lovingly stylized. If you play with a few friends, it’s an absolute blast. It can even be a lot of fun if you’re playing as a loner. It’s highly accommodating.

And then there are the dungeons.

This is me hiding under my associate’s robe, in case you were confused.

Ascalonian Catacombs, or AC as it is now known by historians, is the first dungeon in the game. Bear in mind that the rest of the game works very differently from the dungeons. One of the major selling points of Guild Wars 2 is that the quests and events involve fighting alongside other players without actually having to communicate with them. Anybody who deals any meaningful amount of damage to a monster gains experience for its death, and anybody who contributes to an event’s completion in any way gains rewards afterward. It’s a great way to streamline MMO questing and preserve game flow while also making you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.

The dungeons, by contrast, are instanced and encourage (i.e. require) you to join or form a party of five before entering. These are the only places in the game that actually emphasize collaboration between players. (Excluding PvP, but fuck PvP.) This means that Ascalonian Catacombs is the first time the player is expected to actually collaborate with other players.

So, exactly as you would expect, the dungeon is gruelingly difficult to the point of frustration and tedium.

Wait, what?

Us staring hopelessly at the battleground where we will die.

Each dungeon has two modes: Story mode and Explorable mode. I’m not sure if ArenaNet understands what the words “story” and “explorable” mean, because Explorable mode doesn’t have any more exploration than Story mode, or any less story. The way it actually works is that you’re supposed to do story mode first; Explorable mode is a more difficult version of the dungeon that continues the story after Story mode. What they should really be called is Part 1 and Part 2, or perhaps Hard Mode and Fuck You Player.

On our first attempt at story mode, we Total Party Wiped on the second room. The room consists of at least three dudes that each have powerful abilities and massive health bars, and there are several traps that can kill you in one or two hits. Any reasonable game designer can tell you that that’s horrible pacing. Difficulty is a complex thing and it’s hard to get it exactly right, but as a basic rule of thumb, you generally want to introduce one extremely lethal game mechanic at a time. Don’t combine these two elements until we’re acquainted with both.

Tell me this isn’t the dumbest looking ghost you’ve ever seen. This asshole is the boss.

The boss encounters are generally exercises in watching for hard-to-spot attacks that kill everyone in the room if you don’t dodge at the right time. Both the final boss of Story mode and one of the mid-dungeon bosses in Explorable mode have an attack that instantly pulls everyone toward him, and then deals a big AoE attack that is absolutely guaranteed to kill you. You can dodge it if you press the dodge button right as he’s telegraphing it, but his telegraph can be hard to spot. Oh, and since this is an online game, input lag is always, always going to be a thing.

And by the way, that’s a problem in general with the combat, not just with those individual bosses. The dodge ability is something every player has, and it’s essentially about a second (or even less than a second) long move that makes you dodge all attacks while in effect. This is one of many examples of the game trying to make itself feel like an action game. And it works, for the most part, unless you’re lagging ever-so-slightly and you just happened to be dodging a split-second before the attack, even though you can clearly see you were dodging when the attack happened.

Don’t get me wrong; as an action fan I’m glad to see an MMO courting action game elements. But when it demands that we use these abilities at just the right time when input lag is hiding in the shadows, it’s a recipe for frustration.

Oh, and then there’s the gravelings.

Can you tell what’s going on? Me neither.

There’s an event in explorable mode that my guildies and I just could not get past. Gravelings are these annoying black lizard things that jump out from big burrows and nibble at your shins. They come in armies, and this event involved breaking down multiple burrows at once, while fighting off the little pricks, and while defending two energy crystals. If the crystals break, the monsters disappear and you have to try again from the beginning.

We tried the event dozens of times. We tried different tactics, we tried forming together at certain intervals, splitting up, turtling, aggressively attacking burrows, basically anything we could fathom. Nothing worked. One of us switched characters to see if the party setup was the problem. We even tried consulting online guides. Nothing worked!

The icing on the cake is that when you die — and you will die — your armor becomes damaged. Armor costs money to repair, and it only becomes damaged from death. What this means is that the game is going out of its way to punish us for failing at its absurd challenges. Why? I’m already being punished by having to start the stupid event over; why do you have to append more punishment on top of that?! If you expect me to try over and over to complete your dungeon, then fair enough, but don’t break my pants and take my money and expect me not to rage quit!

Shamus didn’t feel like going and repairing his armor during the dungeon. I guess he likes feeling the breeze.

I really hate to say this, but playing through the Ascalonian Catacombs gives me the same feeling that fighting the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution did. They both feel extremely out-of-place with regard to their respective games, and for all the worst reasons. Guild Wars 2 is otherwise a very gentle, accommodating, accessible and inviting game. This dungeon, on the other hand, is overly punitive and aggressively difficult, and it makes no effort to convey its mechanics gradually. It makes me wonder if ArenaNet outsourced it, because that would explain a lot.

I really, really hope they fix these balance and pacing issues in a patch. It’s simply not fair, and it stands out in an otherwise great game.

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The “Retake Mass Effect” Movement

Quick note: this post is 100% Mass Effect Spoiler-Free. This also applies to the comments section, so if anybody posts a comment with Mass Effect 3 spoilers, it will be deleted and I will get angry about it. Anyway,

As a wise website has said, Gamers Are Embarrassing. That’s not an insult, as far as I’m concerned — that’s a simple fact. Not all gamers are embarrassing, but for all the annoying sports fans, annoying film geeks and annoying bookaholics, somehow gamers take the cake with an extraordinary lack of self-awareness and cluelessness to the world around them.

They obsess over and lust after nonexistent characters, they incessantly harass women for being women, they rage out because a product they bought has decreased in price, and they accuse a $10 cosmetic in-game item of being an “unethical” business practice. It seems that every time gamers gain attention from the media it just makes me shake my head in dismay.

But this time, it’s sunk to a new level.

I think it’s literally impossible for you to have not heard about the controversy until now, but just in case you haven’t, Mass Effect 3 was recently released and had a massive hype and fanbase surrounding it. This third installment was said to end the trilogy of Commander Shepard, and while it does evidently end the story (I’m going by what I’ve heard, I haven’t played it myself) it doesn’t end in a way that the fans like.

Well, that’s a pretty massive understatement. Starting just a few days after the game’s release, angry fans started a  movement called “Retake Mass Effect.” They’ve joined together and demanded that Bioware make a new ending and release it for free, claiming that they are entitled to it because they bought it. They’ve complained all over the Internet, they’ve written petitions, and most famously of all, they filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. No, that’s not a joke.

I don’t even know where to fucking start.

I think the name of this effort is the most telling part: Retake Mass Effect implies that the franchise was ever theirs to begin with, and that it’s time to take it back. News flash, angry fans: Unless you work for Bioware or EA, the franchise was never yours to begin with. If you really want to take Mass Effect, you’d better have a lot of money and some good lawyers.

The idea that you’re somehow entitled to more content if the original content wasn’t to your liking is completely absurd. News flash #2: When you buy a product you are taking a risk. Sometimes the dice will fail you. It is not your place to decide when a company owes you more content, even if it “ruined the rest of the series” for you. Call it unfair all you like. Life is not fair.

I’m not saying you aren’t allowed to criticize, and I’m not saying you’re not allowed to ask Bioware for post-ending DLC or say that you’d buy it if given the opportunity. There is a huge difference between asking and making demands. Making a request shows politeness and understanding, and it implies that you know you’re not the one who owns the rights to the property. Making a demand is rude, insulting and implies a position of power that you don’t have in this case. It implies that you have the right to make decisions for the company, when you never had that right in the first place.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an entitlement complex this egregious. These guys make Valve fans look reasonable and level-headed in comparison.

Yeah, I know what you’re going to say: “But they raised money for Child’s Play!” I know. Charity is great, and I’m glad to see something positive come out of this stupid, stupid controversy. But I don’t give them any points for it, because it’s obvious why they did it: they did it for leverage. They did because they thought media sites wouldn’t be able to criticize them because they’re “doing a good thing.” They did it for positive publicity first and any other reason second, and it’s clear as day.

It’s essentially the equivalent of a politician kissing a baby. He’s not doing it because he loves babies, he’s doing it so people will think he’s a nice guy.

Back off. I know what you're up to.

Bioware has made comments about retconning the ending and making a new one. I’m really concerned by this. Not because it destroys the game’s artistic integrity, but because it’s a sign to all the angry, entitled morons that their actions are justified. It will make them think that they can get what they want by throwing a tantrum and blowing things out of proportion.

I hate to say this, but it really seems like a slippery slope from here. What will the Half-Life fans do when Episode 3 doesn’t reveal who the G-Man is? What will Grand Theft Auto fans do when GTA5 doesn’t let you have sex with prostitutes? What will Duke Nukem fans do when the next game doesn’t let you watch women get raped by aliens?

I’m not trying to defend the ending, or claim that it’s good. I haven’t played the game yet. I know next to nothing about the ending. But frankly, I don’t care how bad it is. I don’t care if it ends with Harbinger giving the camera a middle finger. I don’t care if it ends with an impromptu non sequitur song-and-dance-routine. Nothing justifies this level of outrage and stupidity.

So you thought the ending was bad.

BIG.

FUCKING.

DEAL.

You know what you do about it? You criticize it. Criticize the hell out of it! Send an email to Bioware or post on their forum letting them know that you strongly dislike the ending to their game. If your friends are considering getting it, warn them that the ending RUINED THE SERIES for you. If you’re really pissed off you can get a blog or website of your own and write a few posts of angry ramblings.

And then you know what you do? You fucking deal with it. Find a new game to play. Read a book. Watch a movie. Go to a party. Smoke a hookah. I don’t care what you do, just find some coping mechanism that doesn’t make the rest of us look like a bunch of spoiled brats with no concept of how the world works.

Christ. You know why nobody takes gamers seriously? It’s because of shit like this.


Deus Ex: Human Bullet Sponge

Damn it.

I was planning on telling you guys all about the glorious experience of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I wanted to tell you about the intriguing setting and story, the refined gunplay and stealth, the deep augmentation upgrading system, the engaging hacking minigame, and the surprisingly realistic and intuitive social augment.

I wanted to tell you all this, and then I slammed face-first into a brick wall.

HULK SMASH!

Barrett is the game’s first boss fight, and he’s also a walking tank. I shot him directly in the face with a crossbow and he barely flinched. I unloaded multiple clips of assault rifle ammo on him and he didn’t budge. I know he has augmentations, but I’m pretty sure his entire body isn’t made of titanium, so this kind of puts a strain on versimilitude.

He is also ridiculously, ludicrously, brutally hard to defeat. He deals damage with his gun at such a rapid pace that even one moment out of cover will chop your health bar in half.

I suppose if you built your Adam Jensen to be like Serious Sam it might be a reasonable fight, but my Adam Jensen is not a killing machine. He is a hacker, a talker and a stealther. He’s a thinker first, and a fighter second. If he is forced to face enemies, he prefers to knock them out with a silent takedown or a stun gun. He uses lethal weapons (generally his pistol) only as a last resort. And if he knew he would have been put in a forced combat scenario with the Heavy over there, maybe he wouldn’t have sunk 90% of his augmentation points into hacking upgrades. It’s not easy to outsmart bullet.

Mandatory boss battles were the kiss of death for Alpha Protocol, and now they’re the kiss of death for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This isn’t just unfortunate; this is depressing. This is a horribly disfigured blemish on an otherwise fantastic game.


Fallout 1: Character Creation

This is the first of what will likely be a full series on Fallout 1, which is undoubtedly the Sacred Cow of many of you reading this. There will probably be many complaints and nitpicks, and an overall tone of bitterness. So buckle up. If you have no interest in Fallout and need some alternative method to have more fun with these posts, I’d recommend taking a drink every time I mention that first impressions post I wrote awhile back.

Anyway, I didn’t elaborate on this very much in my original Fallout post, (drink!) but the character creation was really a sore spot for me. I’ll go ahead and repost the screenshot of the character page, just so you can see how complex it is and how they throw it all at you in one piece.

Once again: Kamikaze? Seriously?

I’d fill out the spreadsheet and create my character, and then almost instantly I’d become paranoid that my build isn’t good enough, that I screwed up somehow. I built a character who specializes in melee, but how good is melee? I tagged Outdoorsman as a skill, but how often is that going to be helpful? I used the Gifted trait, but is that really going to benefit me in the end?

There are so many unanswered questions, ambiguously described skills, and presumably unbalanced abilities that the only way you can figure out what works and what doesn’t is by:

  • Trial and error, which will take a pretty damn long time since each trial involves an entire playthrough of the game
  • Looking up a FAQ/walkthrough.

So if you don’t want to have to FAQ it up before starting you first playthrough, you’re going to just have to guess which skills are the best. And I hope you don’t pick Outdoorsman, because that skill is fucking useless.

IcePotato pointed me toward a very insightful article about introducing RPG elements to the player. The gist of it is that throwing too many decisions at the player before he’s had a strong taste of the gameplay is a bad idea, because you’re ultimately forcing the player to answer questions that haven’t been asked yet.

I especially love this line of his: “It’s very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it’s mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.”

It always pisses me off when I know that my choice just wasn’t good enough. This was one part of System Shock 2 that bugged the hell out of me, and what probably ended up causing me to like Bioshock more. I specialized in energy weapons, because it made logical sense to me that a laser sword would be stronger than a wrench.

No such luck, as it turns out; energy weapons are only strong against robotic enemies, and pretty much every major threat toward the end of the game is organic. So if, like me, you specialized in energy weapons, then you get to eat shit. Like I did.

Whenever I try to think of a game that absolutely nailed RPG elements, Deus Ex springs to mind.

That dude looks fabulous.

The game didn’t give you many points to start off with, but the more you got to utilize your skills, the more skill points you would receive as rewards. This way you could specialize in doing the things you liked, rather than just blindly guessing. The game even let you save all the skill points you had at the start, in case you wanted to wait before leveling yourself up.

Every skill point in that game is useful in different situations (yes, even swimming) and while some skills are undeniably more useful than others, those skills cost more points. So it takes a hell of a lot more points to raise your Rifles skill than it takes to raise your Swimming skill. This leads to a system in which you can sink your points into anything you want and still beat the game, but the way you beat the game is drastically different depending on what skills you specialize in. Isn’t that the “zenith” we should all hope to achieve in our RPGs?

Deus Ex was also great because of how straightforward it was. It didn’t give you a bunch of skills and not explain what skills would benefit what situations. Do you want to sneak around people and steal their stuff? Add to Lockpicking and Electronics. Do you want to charge in like Rambo? Add to Rifles and Heavy Weapons. Do you want to be a badass ninja like me and get stealth kills with a silenced pistol and a combat knife? Add to Low-Tech and Pistols. You’re never left guessing about what skills are going to benefit what play style, and what skills aren’t going to be useful at all. (I’m looking at you, Outdoorsman.)

Incidentally, that reminds me… Was this supposed to be about Fallout or something?

Oh yeah! Yesterday I said that I was going to start Fallout again. I did start over. Once I reached Vault 15 I decided to start over again, but with a different character. And this process repeated itself once or twice more before I finally decided on a build I’m happy with, after consulting Twitter and my Steam buddy Jarenth.

I can’t show you my build, because as I said in my original Fallout post, (drink!) the screenshots come out entirely black. I tried using Fraps, but apparently Fraps doesn’t recognize Fallout as a game, which is weird, because it recognizes everything else as a game, including old games from GOG.com, Windows Minesweeper, and full-screen Youtube videos. What makes Fallout so special? I am at a loss for words over this.

But I suppose I can describe the final verdict of my build to you. Agility is my highest attribute, with the runner-ups being Intelligence and Perception. Endurance and Luck are the runt of the litter. I picked the Good-Natured trait and tagged Small Guns, Energy Weapons and Speech.

This may or may not bode well for me.


Retina Desgastada 2.0

Apparently someone mentioned me on their blog. I’m very flattered.

The most unfortunate thing here is that I can’t properly read what he said about me, or what his commentators are saying about me, because I can’t read Portuguese. I can use Google Translate, but that’s a very imperfect system, and whenever I use it I end up with jumbled, barely coherent sentences. But from what I can tell, I think he said something similar to what Shamus said way back when; that while my points go almost diametrically against what he believes, I argue my points well.

I have no idea how true that is, but I really appreciate the sentiment.

He mentioned my review of the intro to Fallout. It seems like this is what I’m destined to be most known for throughout the Internet, which is a bit disappointing for me. Not only is it the most likely post of mine to cause flame wars, but it’s far from my best work. As much as I hate to admit it, that article of mine was just not very well written. I’d like to think my writing has improved since then, and looking back on it now I can’t help but grimace a bit. It’s not that my points were invalid; I just didn’t present them very well.

None of the commentators on Retina Desgastada criticized me for that. But what some of them did say is that my post was weak and full of anachronisms. At least one of them said that tutorials are a bad thing and that Fallout can’t be criticized for not having one. (As I’ve said before, I utterly resent this notion and am glad to see that game designers are willing to educate gamers properly nowadays.) I think one of them implied that my opinion is invalid because I didn’t play all the way through Fallout, which I find a bit unfair because I never said that Fallout is a bad game (I only said that the beginning of Fallout is bad).

I want to respond to these people, but I can’t because as I already said, I can’t speak Portuguese. It seems that those commentators can read English though, so maybe they’ll end up reading this post.

I’ve been wanting to talk more about that whole Vault 15 rope business, because many people seem to think that was a silly or invalid criticism that I emphasized too much. Almost everything about Fallout irritated me, but that rope situation is easily what set me off the most, and what changed my opinion of it from “mildly unbearable” to “fuck this game, I’m playing some god damn TF2.”

One person commented on my Fallout post awhile back saying that the ability to use items in your environment for reasons other than murder is a great feature that RPGs don’t offer anymore. In fact, I’ll just quote him directly:

Having to actually use ropes to get down somewhere is a wonderful RPGy thing that’s been lost. It’s these kind of details that make a game too, for example, in Fallout you could use crowbars not just as weapons but also to pry open doors (if you pass a stat check). The game is full of these little things, and you don’t need a manual, they follow logically. If it were a modern game the crowbar would be a “quest item” and there would be a whole special quest so you can get it and use just on *that* single door that needs it. Its stupid. These things should flow naturally, not so artificially. So Fallout won’t throw that rope at you with a special marker and prohibit you from removing it from your inventory, acquiring said rope will follow naturally from your actions.

First off, that’s not an RPG thing. That’s a point-and-click-adventure thing. I don’t only play shooters, guys. I know my genres. And “use item on set dressing” is a very basic and fundamental staple of adventure games. I guess Fallout was part RPG and part adventure game. But don’t pretend that everything you liked about Fallout was “a wonderful RPGy thing that’s been lost.”

Second of all, I would think it’s great that the game lets you use miscellaneous items to solve problems in alternative ways. Much like using your high Speech skill to convince an NPC to give you an item rather than killing him and looting it off his corpse, it’s a nice way to give the player more options and make the experience feel more fleshed out. The reason I don’t approve of the Vault 15 rope situation is because it’s not an alternate solution; it’s the only solution. That’s what makes it needless and stupid. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than getting in your way and forcing you to backtrack.

I thought RPGs are supposed to be about player choice. I thought that’s what everyone said. I mean, wasn’t “railroading” one of the big reasons why everyone hated Fallout 3? If Fallout is going to force me to pick up a rope on a bookshelf in Shady Sands just to get into Vault 15, then I can’t acknowledge it as being any better in the railroading department. There should have been at least one other option.

As I said in my original Fallout post, it really gave me the impression that I’m not allowed to think for myself in this game; that I have to do things the way Black Isle wanted me to.

One of the comments that I deleted for being too inflammatory pointed out that if the rope situation was in Fallout 3 I would have just gone, gotten the rope, used it and moved on without throwing a fit. This is probably true. And yet in Fallout it left me brimming with Viking rage. Why? Well, because it was the last straw. Because Fallout has an unbearably slow pace, an atrocious interface, and some of the worst combat I have played in a long fucking time.

No, this isn’t just because I don’t like CRPGs. Baldur’s Gate 2 was much more fun than this. Neverwinter Nights was more fun than this. Why? Because those games offered some semblance of challenge.

As I’ve said before, there are three primary ways in which a game can challenge you (not counting stupid ways like patience and luck); Strategy (as in mental challenges, a la puzzle games, strategy games, etc.), skill, and reflexes. If a game is going to give me combat, I expect it to challenge me in at least one of these ways. Fallout, or at least the beginning of Fallout, offers you nothing.

A CRPG can generally be expected to offer challenge in the form of strategy, but there is no strategy in the Fallout combat (once again, just talking about the beginning here). You just whack the enemy with your knife or shoot it with your gun. There’s no thought, it’s just repetitive pointing and clicking. It just comes off as needless filler. And perhaps it would be a bit more bearable if it didn’t take so long to trudge through.

And don’t say that Fallout 3 was the same way. Fallout 3 is a shooter RPG, and shooters (by definition) demand a level of skill.

You can accuse me of being an instant gratification gamer who can’t have fun unless there’s an explosion happening every five seconds, but this argument only holds up for you if you’ve ignored all the times I’ve mentioned enjoying games like Final Fantasy, Civilization, and Dungeons & Dragons.

And finally, to the people who think that not playing through the game invalidates my opinion: You know what? I’ve been wanting closure for far too long, so we’ll have it your way. I’m picking Fallout back up, and I’m not stopping until I’ve officially beaten the game. Well, I will be stopping for restroom breaks, meals, sleep, college, my social life, etc. But the point is, I’m not just going to rage quit and put the game down for months at a time because of a rope. I’m going to finish this game even if it kills me.

Expect some rants in the near future.

To Retina Desgastada: I really appreciate the plug, and it’s nice to read your thoughts on the subject, even if I can’t read them exactly as they should be read.


Why I Hate Fighting Games, Part 2

Note: this is a continuation of a bitter rant I indulged in awhile ago. That post was caused by me playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at a friend’s house. This post was caused by me recently receiving Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition as a gift from a friend. It’s entirely possible that I’ll end up writing one of these every time I’m exposed to a new fighting game. And I feel the need to clarify that despite utterly hating fighting games, I still have fun playing them. Like I said in that last post, it’s sort of a love/hate relationship.

But anyway, last time I basically said that I hate fighting games because I suck at them, but by now I feel justified in saying it’s not my fault that I suck at them; it’s the genre’s fault for being inaccessible. I’ve been playing them for years, and every other genre of competitive games I’ve played for extended periods I’ve actually learned how to play properly.

Let me use two genres I play often as examples: shooters and RTS games (these days that mostly manifests in Team Fortress 2 and Starcraft 2 for me).

When you play a shooter for extended periods of time, it’s pretty clear what you have to do to become better. You have to hone your reflexes, learn to aim precisely, become familiar with the weapons at your disposal and how to use them properly, etc. There are additional things you have to learn for particular games; in Team Fortress 2 you have to learn to move quickly to dodge rockets, grenades, arrows, and other projectiles, while in (say) Call of Duty 4 you have to learn to take cover effectively, crouch and lie prone at opportune times to improve your aiming, and other elements that go into what we commonly call “tactical shooters.” All pretty straightforward stuff.

In an RTS it’s a bit more complicated, but it’s still pretty obvious if you play one consistently. Most importantly you have to learn to use hotkeys effectively; instead of having to scroll your mouse over to the command center and press the “Build SCV” button, you can set the command center to hotkey #4, then hit 4 and S to build one immediately. Then you have to learn to keep track of all your buildings and units and make sure they’re all doing what they should be doing at any given time so you can run your base as efficiently as possible. It’s all about micromanagement.

The rabbit hole goes pretty deep, but it’s not hard to figure out where you can improve.

Fighting games, on the other hand, seem perfectly content with keeping newcomers behind a wall of inaccessibility. I’ve played the tutorials and trial challenges in Super Street Fighter IV, and all they actually teach me is how to execute specific special moves, not how to apply them in combat. After learning those, all I really know to do is spam those moves over and over, and any experienced fighting game player can tell you that tactics like those will not work in the big leagues.

I’ve asked fighting game fans about this, and they either can’t give me a straight answer or give me bullshit responses that don’t help me in any way. “Oh, you have to learn ‘footsies,’ ‘tactics,’ ‘cancels,’ blah blah blah.” Do those terms mean anything to you? Because for me they might as well be in Latin. And like I said, I’ve been playing fighting games for years, so this shouldn’t be the case.

And you could say that I should get on the Shoryuken wiki or whatever and read for hours and hours so I can learn how to play the games, but I think that’s an incredibly weak and flimsy defense for the game not teaching the player properly in the first place. Reading a wiki is basically like reading an incredibly long, unintuitive, unofficial manual, and you all know my thoughts on manuals.

You could say that fighting games just “aren’t for me,” but I think there’s a genuine problem with the genre here, and I’m not the only one who thinks this. And I’m really sick of the mentality that “you’re not allowed to complain about games if you suck at them,” because if the game is not making itself accessible to newcomers, then it definitely has issues.


Apparently New Games Suck

If you frequent The Escapist then you’ve probably seen MovieBob’s show, The Big Picture. He had a “junk drawer” episode last week where he talked about a bunch of random things, and there’s one thing he mentioned in particular that caused me to make the face you see above. And the pose. And the fire. Here, let me just quote him.

I don’t mind that Super Mario 3D’s version of the Tanooki Suit doesn’t turn you into a statue anymore. You know why? Because the important thing is that Mario is wearing a pudgy animal costume that invests him with powers having zero relation to the animal in question. That’s why. This sort of crazy nonsense used to be the bread and butter of video games, and it’s been absent for way too long as far as I’m concerned. You know how much better Gears of War would be if Marcus would put on a koala costume that shot a freeze ray at people? A lot.

I really don’t want to turn this into a MovieBob hate post (although he’s certainly given me many reasons to make one) but that statement of his really sticks out in my mind. In a bad way. And I know he’s at least partially joking about it, but it infuriates me nonetheless.

Throughout the net I’ve heard about a million different renditions of the argument “_______ used to be EVERYWHERE in video games, and now it’s GONE, and that’s why new games SUCK.” The mental image it always gives me is that of an old man tensely gripping his walking stick and lecturing the youngin’s on all the things that are wrong with their generation.

I think what MovieBob said deserves special mention because it’s probably the most bullshitty example I’ve ever heard, but you’ll hear shit like this everywhere. Apparently video games suck now because they don’t make you so frustrated that you want to break your controller in half, and because they don’t have confusing, unintuitive and obnoxious level design (okay, I don’t actually think that a shooter should use one long corridor as its level design, but having played games like Thief and Unreal lately I can testify that those games would be far, far better if they simply gave you a decent map to look at).

But I think the most egregiously stupid argument I’ve heard against new games, the one that enrages me the most, is the “handholding” complaint. Whenever I hear someone say “it doesn’t hold your hand” in defense of a game I just want to slap that person in the face. I think the Extra Credits team put it very well: “Game designers are teachers. If you can’t design a good tutorial, you probably don’t have any business making a triple-A game.” And yet when I don’t know what to do in an old game, apparently that’s my fault because I was expecting the game to “hold my hand.”

Whenever I hear someone say “This is a ‘read the manual’ kind of game,” to me that’s equivocal to saying “This is a ‘crappy’ kind of game.”

I don’t think old games inherently suck. If I did I wouldn’t be doing my whole ongoing voyage into old classics. But I don’t think they’re inherently better than new games either. Yeah, some old games are absolutely fantastic. Deus Ex blew my mind. But that’s not because it was old. It’s because the designers had some really innovative design philosophy. If that game was made nowadays it would probably have smaller levels, but I’m willing to bet they could still do all that gameplay-story integration that I loved so much, even with all the current-gen graphics demands.

And I’ve got to say, as fun as some of these old games I’ve played are, they really don’t hold up to some of the newer games I’ve played lately. Half-Life was undoubtedly an awesome game, but I’d choose Portal 2 over it any day. Stealing riches in Thief is quite exciting indeed, but not nearly as much as sneaking into a cathedral and assassinating a target in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. In my opinion anyway.

It’s fine to like old games more than new games. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. But I’m really getting fed up with this notion that new games are always, always crap when compared to old games, because that mentality just seems rooted in arrogance and nostalgia.


Personal Preference vs. Bad Design

So as you all know by now, I didn’t have a pleasant experience with Fallout 1. In one post about it I said:

Some people call that “not handholding.” I call it “bad design.” Yeah, some people might like it, but most people don’t, and if most gamers don’t like your game, you’ve failed as a designer.

Then one guy responded with:

Does this mean that anything unpopular is therefore bad? Is Grindcore, for example, a failure of music and artistry because most people don’t like it?

Here’s the thing. Yeah, I know that sometimes it boils down to personal preference. I know that when I don’t like something in a game it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad game. I’ve known this for years, and I definitely knew it when I criticized the hell out of Fallout. But here’s the other thing: There is also such a thing as good design and bad design in games. I know this because the same can be said for music, film, literature, and pretty much any form of art and entertainment.

So I ask you this: Where do you draw the line? When does it stop being a matter of taste, and start being a matter of bad design philosophy?

This is not a trivial question, and it’s something that’s been bugging me for awhile. You could say that as long as there’s an audience who likes it that means it isn’t bad design, but you have to remember that there’s quite a large audience who thinks Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is “like, totally fucking awesome.” Yet it’s still a bad movie.

There are people who like it when games kick them all the way back to the start of the level (or in the case of some people, to the start of the game) for screwing up once. It doesn’t matter how bad a particular design choice is; there will always be people who like it. That doesn’t mean it’s good.

See, I remember playing The Sims 3 somewhat recently, and while I didn’t really enjoy it much, I do have to say that it’s quite a well-designed game. It really stands out from most other games, because it’s all about player-driven story. When you create a character you choose a goal for her and work toward it using all the different parts of the great big sandbox city. Your character has a job and has needs and she will age overtime, so you have to use time management skills to work toward whatever goal you’ve set while also making sure your character lives a happy life. And as you make these choices, those choices define the life your character lives. Will she be an artist, an accountant, an actress, what? Will she get a part-time job at a fast food joint or will she make money on the side by painting and selling portraits? Will she be a party animal or a hermit? When the trailer says “infinite possibilities,” it really isn’t kidding.

This is something we rarely see in games. Most games have one predetermined story, and while a lot of RPGs give you some leeway in terms of how events will unfold, it’s pretty much set in stone where you’ll be going and what will happen. In The Sims 3, everything is up to you. The reason I didn’t enjoy it much is because while it is a glorious triumph of player-driven story, said story will inevitably have a rather slow pace as you work your way toward your goal, and the gameplay just got too repetitive for me to stick with it.

But I can still acknowledge that it’s a very well-designed and creative game. See, guys? I don’t think everything that bores me is an inherently bad game!

So why did I give Fallout such a hard time? Because I do think that the beginning of Fallout was objectively bad. (I’m not going to say the whole game is bad, since I didn’t play it all the way through. That would be ignorant of me.) In that little first impressions review I wrote I think I pointed out some genuinely bad design.

You may ask why I’m bringing this Fallout business up now. Well, there’s two reasons for that. Firstly, because I got into a very long, drawn-out argument with some friends about this very topic yesterday and it really got me thinking. Secondly, because to this day I still get frustrated when I think of how some people responded to my Fallout review way back when. It’s fine to disagree with me, but some people seemed to assume that I know nothing about game design and criticism. It probably sounds petty, and that’s probably because it is petty, but damn it, I want some closure.

The question I asked remains unanswered: Where do you draw the line?


Super Grind Boy

Yeah, I know it’s not Saturday. But I’m making a post anyway.

See, I have a lot of things I want to write about on this blog. But a lot of them I haven’t gotten around to writing, because sometimes I can’t think of 600+ words to write about those topics, sometimes these topics sort of retread stuff I’ve already discussed, and since I’ve so far only been posting once a week, I simply don’t have enough posts to cover all those topics.

So from now on I’m going to be posting more often than once a week. I don’t think I’m going to pick another day to set in stone as a “posting day,” but generally you can expect Saturday’s post to be your usual weekly text wall, and any other day of the week I may post a rant, an anecdote, a podcast video, or whatever I may or may not feel like posting at the time.

So anyway, I know I already talked about Super Meat Boy, but I’ve been playing it today for that whole potato sack business, and there’s something specific that I want to gripe about: the warp zones.

Each world has a few warp zones you can find within the levels, and each warp zone has three levels and two bandages (bandages are your standard collectible item for this game). You get three lives for each level. Once you beat the first one, you get sent to the next one and get three lives again, etc. And if you lose all three lives on one level, you get kicked back out onto the world map and have to start the whole process again. And the kicker: if you got a bandage in one of the levels, you have to beat the entire warp zone to keep it.

I only had one bandage left to grab in order to have completed all 100% of World Two. The bandage I needed was in the first level of a warp zone. Let’s look at it.

So I have to get from the bottom of the level to the top (where Bandage Girl is), and it’s hard to see, but the bandage I need to grab is floating at the very, very top of the picture. Each block on that white wall disappears a second or two after I touch it, and so I have to touch a few blocks on the wall, jump off, and then land on top of a block below one of the ones that just disappeared, and then jump across to the other side.

I have to do that three times, and believe me, it is harder than it sounds. Especially since you have to play as Meat Boy in the warp zones, and he controls like a bar of soap. This is by far the hardest level in the warp zone.

Next level:

You can only see two of the three rooms in this level. It’s sort of the same concept as last time; touch a white block, wait for it to disappear, jump down to the next room, repeat until you get to Bandage Girl. Oh, and those brightly colored blocks are being shot out from those red and white stripy blocks, and if you touch one of them you die.

It probably sounds harder than the first level, but it’s easier, since gravity is on your side this time.

And finally,

You can’t really capture this level in an image, since it’s vertically very long and narrow (hardy har har). Those bright blocks are constantly being shot toward the center of the level (where I’m standing in the shot) and you start out at the bottom. You have to wall-jump up to the top, then jump back down to the middle of the other side where Bandage Girl is. The hard part is when you’re on the left side, because acceleration picks up very quickly as you’re falling down and it’s hard to land right there in the middle.

Anyway, so after I got the bandage (which took me quite a few tries, mind) I had to get through the other two levels without dying more than three times in a row so that I could keep it. And of course, that didn’t happen the first time. Or the second time. Or the third.

In this day and age, there is absolutely no fucking excuse for not having reasonable checkpoints. Since the regular levels don’t have a lives system implemented, this shows that they went out of their way to make the warp zone levels more obnoxious and punishing. Why? Why the hell would you do that? It just turns the experience into a grind through the same few levels.

Today I’m going to introduce a new segment that I’ll be using whenever I feel like it. It’s called One Might Say, or OMS for short. It’s a Q&A style list of rebuttals that someone might say, followed by my hypothetical reply to their hypothetical response.

One Might Say: The warp zone levels were designed to feel retro, so that’s obviously why they added the lives system to them.

I Would Reply: Yeah, I get that. It was easy enough to extrapolate that from the blocky graphics and MIDI sounds and tunes. But was it really necessary to add a lives system after all that? I’m alright with making things retro until the retro gets in the way of the fun. A lot of old game tropes died out for a good reason.

OMS: The lives system is there to make the game harder so that once you do beat it you’ll have a greater sense of accomplishment. That’s what old school gaming was all about, you noob.

IWR: There’s nothing wrong with challenge. I’m fine with challenge. I’m not complaining about these levels being challenging. I’m complaining about the punishment for failure being obnoxious and needless. It deliberately wastes the player’s time, and it adds nothing to the experience, since all it’s making me do is replay levels I’ve already beaten several times before. Beating the final level of Super Meat Boy gave me a sense of accomplishment. Getting the last bandage in World 2 didn’t make me feel accomplished, it made me feel relieved because I wouldn’t have to play any of those stupid levels anymore. Speaking of which…

OMS: You don’t have to beat the warp zone levels to beat the game. They’re optional. If you don’t like them, don’t play them!

IWR: Okay, this bothers me for two reasons. First of all, the entire game is “optional” when you get right down to it. “Beating the game” doesn’t actually mean anything in the long run. If a level is optional, all that really means is that you can put it off until later. Just because it’s non-linear doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to criticize it for bad design. Second of all, it’s not like I’m just saying these levels are completely bad. If I ranted about every game that was bad, I’d never have time to talk about anything good. The reason this is particularly upsetting to me is because my frustration and irritation has been caused entirely by one bad design choice. If they simply cut out the lives system and let me try as many times as I want for each level, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

OMS: You should just be thankful that they reset your lives to 3 after each level.

IWR: Fuck off.

…Wow, I ended up with over 1200 words. I guess the reason I’m posting this now rather than this Saturday is because I’ve already ranted about crappy checkpoint mechanics before, and I figure people would want to hear about something else when they come for my weekly post.

Besides, Portal 2 is coming out in a few hours, and I need to keep my mind off of it so my hands don’t start trembling again.