Thursday, 30 January 2014

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

This one is a long time coming. Enslaved is just one of those games that everyone who's played it says is good, and yet very few people end up playing it. It just has this quality that says "you don't have to play me right now, go ahead, wait until I'm cheaper". At least, this was the case for me until I finally picked it up for a measly $5 on PSN. Having now played the game to completion, I thought I would talk a bit about it, if for no other reason than to try and get straight my own opinion of it. You see, Enslaved is a really weird case to me... Allow me to explain.

Enslaved starts out really strong. From the get go you are thrown into the action with no expository introductions. The game opens with a tutorial section that is perhaps a little over done, but considering you are at the time escaping from a crashing airship, I feel as though the action excuses the tutorial a bit. Beyond the first chapter, the game does a good job of never really taking you out of the action too long. The game's story doesn't try to be over complicated, and is told largely through or in parallel to gameplay. What's more, the characters are all quite genuine, and listening to them talk is never annoying or disinteresting. In particular, Andy Serkis does a stellar job as the main character Monkey.

Monkey isn't really your average protagonist. He's a big brute, he's very angry, and everything from his voice acting to his fighting style to the dramatic kill cam the occasionally pops up really hammers home this point. He has pretty good reason to be, to. Early on in the game a girl named Trip fits a slave headband on Monkey, tying his life to hers and forcing him to do her bidding. She is terrified of Monkey, but she also realizes that he is her only hope to get home. What I found really interesting about this though, is that it very quickly becomes unclear who is the real master here. Monkey may have to do what Trip commands, but at the same time Monkey has no qualms telling Trip what to do. In fact, giving Trip orders is a somewhat big part of the gameplay. It's not even annoying, like most escorting tends to be. Seeing how the two characters interact in such a strange, stressful situation is pretty cool, even if where it all leads is fairly predictable.

Unfortunately, that's kind of the story of Enslaved I feel. On the surface everything looks and feels pretty stellar. The game actually reminds me a lot of Uncharted, which is pretty high praise. The graphics are superb and colorful, the gameplay does a good job of mixing combat, climbing and puzzles. Even the way Monkey runs around feels similar to controlling Drake. Everything is really well polished and the presentation is excellent. And yet... The game feels lacking somehow. Like they were trying to paint this beautiful picture, and they did, except instead of painting it on canvas they were painting on printer paper. Sure what's there is a work of art, but what's underneath isn't so great, and it drags down the quality as a whole.

None of the issues behind Enslaved are massive, thankfully. Most of it comes down to minor annoyances. The camera is wonky here, jumping from this pipe to that pipe is weirdly picky, there are a few too many platforming sections, the few puzzles in the game, are tedious and not very rewarding, the game feels like it wasn't designed with regenerating health in mind (granted, it's an optional upgrade) etc. Probably the biggest complaint is the combat. There isn't as much of it as you might think, but what's there is pretty simplistic. You just kind of beat on things until they die, and it's way too easy up until about 2/3 of the way through the game. At that point you have to start using your abilities a little more wisely, but combat transitions straight from mindless to irritating. Enemies can decide they want to be blocking or start attacking you at seemingly any time and there isn't really anything you can do about it. Combat just felt tedious, and considering how well Monkey's rage is conveyed, you would think smashing mechs would be more fun. There are a couple hours in the middle where the game really drags, too.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that, Enslaved is definitely an impressive game, I enjoyed playing it. It's a much better experience than a game, though. It's really weird to me, to see a game with so much polish have so many little design issues. One would think that part of polishing the game would be also tweaking the design, but the issues are there none the less. Most of them are pretty easily overlooked, but they come up often enough that it feels like there's always something to be annoyed at. It's pretty common to see a game with lots of potential end up being mediocre, but Enslaved is perhaps the first game I've seen that is mediocre at it's core, but polished so heavily that it ended up being pretty darn good. If you are more willing to overlook gameplay flaws (and I'm almost positive that you are) Enslaved is definitely worth checking out.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Awesome Games Done Quick 2014

As I type this, Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 is just wrapping up. What is Awesome Games Done Quick you ask? Well it's a week-long speedrunning marathon for charity. Games Done Quick events have been been going on for a few years now, and they have been growing pretty rapidly each time. Three years ago a handful of guys in a basement raised $10 000. This time around a crew of 500+ people rented out a hotel for a week and raised $1 000 000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. The scale of these events are amazing, they are practically a mini-convention at this point, and obviously $1 000 000 for charity is incredible.

So perhaps you are also wondering what exactly speedrunning is. It's pretty self explanatory, but it essentially entails playing a video game from start to finish as quickly as possible. It sounds simple, but in practice it means extremely skilled players with a lot of knowledge about their chosen game, and a plethora of tricks and glitches that make the game do things you never thought it could do. It's really entertaining to see such high level play, and the way some of the glitches work is fascinating, especially if you are familiar with how games are made or know something about programming.

I make this post for two reasons, but essentially it's just because Games Done Quick events are amazing. Generating so many donations for charity is hugely worthwhile, and it's super entertaining to see such a wide variety of games get ripped apart. Marathons tend to be especially entertaining, because the focus is a little more on showmanship and commentary. So keep an eye out for more of them in the future, Summer Games Done Quick should be happening in about 5-6 months, and there are several smaller events popping up all the time. Keep an eye on and

So if you aren't convinced that Games Done Quick is worth watching, watch these clips. In fact watch them anyways, because they are freaking amazing. And all 3 of them happened within about 6 hours.

Super Punch-Out Blindfolded
Super Metroid 4-man race
Goldeneye co-op

If I've piqued your interest, you can find a list of links to every run in the marayhon here, here and here. I haven't seen every run, but here are some highlights beyond the top 3 above, in chronological order:

Jak and Daxter any% by Bonesaw577
I don't really know the game, but it's a good run and Bonesaw is an entertaining guy. Good way to start the marathon.

Viewtiful Joe any% by tminator64
If you know the game, you can probably imagine how entertaining it is played super well and super fast. Unfortunately not many people run it, but it's a really great watch and tminator64 is a charismatic fellow.

Mario 64 0-Stars and Super Mario World by TASBot
Both very short, but demonstrates what's called a Tool Assisted Speedrun. As the name implies, it uses emulators to record a set of inputs which will play the game more perfectly than is possible for a human being. It's pretty impressive, and what they were able to do with Super Mario World is especially impressive.

Yoshi's Island 100% by Tri-hex
This is a fairly long run, but Yoshi's Island is one of the most technically impressive speedruns I have ever seen, and Tri-hex is a great showman with a very fast and chaotic play style. It's worth seeing at least some of it.

Mega Man X 100% race by Caleb Hart and Zewing
This race can't not be bad. These 2 are the top 2 in the world in a very optimized run of a really good game. Just to make things more interesting, they even have a slightly different route through the game.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Richter all bosses race by Mecha Richter and Zex
This race was great. SotN is a great game, Richter is really hard and requires an insane amount of skill and practice to play this well, and it was a very close race, too.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Alucard any%
This is here mostly just because I love this game and I love this run. romscout is insanely good at it, and this run ended up being really really good.

F-Zero GX Very Hard mode by CGN
This game is really hard, and this guy is really good. To add to the hype they upped the difficulty a bit more by donating to add a couple challenges, and it's just pretty exciting all around. Lots of people consider this one of their favorite runs of the marathon.

Borderlands any% co-op by ProfessorBroman, Teawrex, UberGoose and iMysty
Longish run, but very entertaining I think. Lots of pretty crazy glitches, a couple developers on Skype, the 4 guys have a good repor etc. It's kind of hard to appreciate how crazy it is, but it's a fun time. I find it really interesting how well planned out the run is, considering that it has to be optimized for all 4 players, who often go off and do 4 completely different things.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Blindfolded by Sinister1
Enough said, really. Playing any game blindfolded is clearly very impressive. This one was a really strong contender for top-3, but there were so many other amazing runs that it barely got edged out.

Super Punch-Out Blindfolded by Zallard1
Obviously similar to Punch-Out, but the whole thing was just a little bit more hype. The game itself has a bit more punch to it, the runner is a bit more animated, it was a little more touch and go, and Mike Tyson isn't around to ruin all the fun. Easily one of the most fun runs I've ever seen.

The Legend of Zelda: Major's Mask any% by ZFG
Majora's Mask is a pretty cool run, and this one went pretty well. I will say however that MM has this problem where you have a ton of setup and not enough payoff - there are long periods of the run where not a lot happens.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time all dungeons race by ZFG and Moltov
This race was really really good. It was quite close, and it does a really good job of demonstrating the absurd level to which tricks and glitches open up this game. I recommend this one pretty strongly, though it might be hard to follow both guys if you don't already know a bit about OoT speedruns.

Metroid Prime any% by Miles
Metroid Prime runs are always pretty popular, they've been around for a long time and are just pretty cool on the whole. I'm not a big fan of the runner, but they also had one of the game's developers on Skype which was pretty awesome.

Super Metroid any% 4-man race by Garrison, Krauser, Zoast and Ivan
This is easily one of the top 3 runs of the marathon. Super Metroid is a great speedrun to begin with. Add in a stupid close 4-man race and a couple hundred people in the room, some of the best commentary of the marathon, and the hype is insane. Seriously, if you didn't watch it, go do it.

Metroid Zero Mission hard mode low% by Dragondarch
This run is interesting in a bit different way, being low%. In other words Dragondarch purposefully avoids as many upgrades as possible while also playing on hard mode. This category is more for insane challenge than a fast run, but he pulls it off. A really tense hour+ of really skilled play.

Goldeneye 007 Agent Mode co-op by BassBoost and RWhiteGoose
This run is nuts. First off - these two are both playing the game. Essentially one guy moves and the other shoots. Goldeneye speedrunning is insanely optimized and pretty intense to begin with, and it happens that their time still manages to be really really good. Also Goose is the living embodiment of hype. I suppose it also helps that 7/8 of the games before this one were all really awesome (hint - the last 7 games on this list).

Super Mario 64 one-handed by PEACHES_
Mario 64 is a really impressive run just in general. Peaches isn't as amazing as some other players, and obviously playing one-handed is going to reduce the quality of his play. But like, he's playing one-handed. That's fricking insane.

Chrono Trigger 100% by obdajr
I'm going to be totally honest- don't watch this whole run. It's almost 6 hours long and it's a turn based RPG, so it's kind of hard to really appreciate a lot of the little things going on. Outside of nostalgia it's not the best watch. However this was the last game of the marathon. The last 40-60 minutes or so were pretty cool just in terms of gameplay. Combine that with the fact that there was a mad dash at the end to see if donations could actually hit the 1 million before the end of the run. Both things combined make for a pretty insane end to the marathon, all set to World Revolution. You can watch from about here if you want to see what I mean.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Combat Analysis

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game that was well received critically, but received a somewhat more mixed reception from gamers. This isn't that surprising, considering the game did a lot of things that were bound to upset fans of the series, including retconning the story, being 3D, being level based, etc. That said, the game was still excellent in a lot of ways. The game's environments were all very well crafted, and showed a lot of imagination. The soundtrack was quite epic, but never got in the way. The story was a pretty interesting re-imagining of the origins of Dracula and the Belmont clan. It's a game with a lot of meat to it, and unsurprisingly, a lot of evil creatures to kill. That's where this post comes in. Today I will be taking a look at what the game's combat did right, and where it could be improved.

So to kick things off, what exactly is the combat like? Well on the surface it looks and feels a lot like God of War. Gabriel Belmont uses his trusty Combat Cross to whip at things from a distance, make combos, send enemies skyward, grab enemies for dramatic finishers, etc. On it's own it's a decent imitation of God of War, but things start getting interesting as you progress in the game and obtain the light and shadow magic. These powers each come with their own magic bar, and can be toggled on at any time to add special effects to your normal attacks, and enable the use of some special abilities. Light magic causes your attacks to heal you, while shadow magic does extra damage to your enemies. These attacks drain your magic, and the main way to restore it is using the game's focus system. As you attack enemies focus is gained, with bigger combos generating it faster. Inactivity will slowly drain focus, while getting hit will reset it entirely. While in a fully focused state, any time an enemy is attacked they will generate magic orbs which can later be absorbed to fill your magic.

This system creates a really interesting dance between keeping yourself alive, keeping your magic reserves high, and actually using your magic. A lot of thought can be put into how best to manage the resources available to you to best make it through a fight. Should you use shadow magic to finish the fight quickly? What if you get hit, then you need to heal yourself and you won't have any focus to refill that magic. When do you build your focus? You can't do that and heal at the same time. When do you switch your magic back on when your focus fills? Do you just fill up your magic, or do you generate extra magic orbs in case you need them later? The issue here is that as interesting as this system is in theory, it has some problems in practice. For one, it just doesn't really fit well with the way the game's combat actually works, and for another it rewards perfect play too well while over-punishing imperfect play. Allow me to explain:

The issues with Castlevania's combat can basically all be boiled down to, it's too easy to get hit. Enemies in Lords of Shadow tend to either appear in large numbers, or have very unpredictable / poorly telegraphed attacks, or some combination therein. Most fights consist of enemies dashing and slashing all over the place, and it gets very hard to react to everything going on. When a particularly nasty attack is incoming they are always telegraphed, but the window to react to it without getting hit is small. In fact the reaction window feels very similar in length to how long you are locked into an animation while attacking or rolling. It seems to me that the intention was that the player should block a lot of these attacks, but this is made needlessly hard by the game's controls. For some reason it was decided that the block button should be the same as the roll button. Holding the button blocks, pressing the button while holding the L-stick causes you to roll in that direction. The issue is that in combat you are constantly using the L-stick to move Gabriel, to direct where he should be attacking, whatever. So attempted blocks frequently instead cause you to roll into the attack you are trying to block. I honestly believe that if rolling had been assigned to the R-stick instead (which is not used for anything ever) a lot of the combat's issues would have been alleviated.

But back to the issue at hand, getting hit is especially bad in Lords of Shadow. Sure, you lose some life, but the implications are much more than that. You basically have three resources in combat: health, focus, and magic. As I described earlier, you use focus to generate magic and you use magic to heal health. The issue is that getting hit drains all three resources simultaneously. Damage reduces health and resets your focus, while also necessitating that you expend magic to heal. In other words, even the smallest of hits can mess up your rhythm entirely. It's incredibly frustrating to constantly be low on magic because the odd stupid attack hits you. On the flip side of things, if you do manage to fill your focus you are typically given an absolutely absurd amount of magic orbs in a short period of time - quite possibly more than you know what to do with. In other words the punishment for being hit is too big, and so is the reward for not being hit. 100% of the rewards are at the top of the scale, and anything but perfect play results in starvation.

With all that said however, I will say that there are merits to both extremes of this system. Low magic situations tend to feel very intense and scrappy - you are literally fighting for your life. If you can't keep your combo going, you won't be able to keep healing yourself. On the flip side, when you fill your focus the reward is pretty big and you feel unbeatable. However that said, I personally would have still preferred if the system had a bit more even of a gradient. For example, perhaps every attack should have a small chance to generate orbs once your focus is greater than 50%, with the chance and volume of orbs increasing as your focus approaches 100%. You still have low magic situations, but you at least get something if you're playing decently. You don't feel like you have to play perfectly to survive, but if you are playing really well the reward is still big. That's my thought anyways. It's fun trying to manage your resources, but you can't exactly manage resources if the game is starving you.

In the end of the day, I think Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is still a very competent title. If it's combat was a little better, the game probably could have been great, though. It will be very interesting to see what changes Lords of Shadow 2 makes when the game comes out in the end of February. If the demo is any indication it seems like the focus system has been forsaken entirely in favor of automatically regenerating magic. I wait with bated breath.