Friday, June 24, 2011

Speaking of console games

Blogging has been slow, because I've been writing code and Jmac is off at Origins. Surely he will have tales to tell when he returns, but in the meantime, I will talk about games.

Not in any incisively analytical way, mind you. It's just that I snarfed four PS3 games this gaming season, and in the past month I booted them all up.

In order of how much I liked them:

Little Big Planet

I picked this as one of my two free games from Sony's "we're sorry, we suck, have some free games, oh look we still suck" promotion. (See also: I picked it because it was the PS3's you-gotta-play-this-one of... not last year... crap, of 2008? I am behind.

I'm sorry to say that it didn't grab me at all. Yes, I get the adorable, and the narrator voice is undeniably perfect. But the toy world somehow didn't give me the "show me a world I haven't seen" buzz that I require. Super Mario games give me that, for heavens' sake, but not LBP. It was the opposite of environmental storytelling: the environment told me "this doesn't matter, there is no story". After a couple of sessions I let it slip through my fingers.

You'd think I'd get into level-building, but again, this is not the world I want to build. Sorry.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

This was my first Castlevania game. (Oh, second, I suppose. Ten years ago I played a little way through... hm... which the heck was it... You know, I don't think that was a Castlevania game at all. Well, now I feel silly.)

Anyhow. This was my first Castlevania game. It was on discount, and it's my genre: over-the-shoulder sword-swinging action-adventure games. With architecture and interesting boss fights. (Really, that's what got me into console gaming in the first place. Macs are one thing, the iPad may be another, but on consoles -- these.)

Not this one, though. The camera was notably terrible even for an over-the-shoulder game -- some kind of "atmospheric" camera jitter brought me closer to mal-de-videogame than I've ever been. The writing wasn't good. The scenery was decent, and so was the exploration-puzzling, but when I got to the first big boss fight I just wiped out. Nothing clever in it, just the bash-and-dodge multi-stage whompfest that everyone thinks is inevitable in these games. I'll get through one of those if I like the game -- sometimes. But if I've burned half an hour replaying one fight over and over -- in easy mode -- eventually I give up. I gave up.


The second of my freebies from Sony. Grand Theft Auto except you shoot lightning instead of stealing cars. I started out enthusiastic about this game. Running around is fun, climbing buildings is fun, zapping baddies is fun (in easy mode, sure). Running missions is fun. Package-hunting is bonus fun. The writing was awful, the good-evil decisions were the type specimen of lame videogame morality, and the story presentation managed to completely miss out the experience of learning to be a superhero; all of your reactions to the situation somehow happen off-screen. But being a superhero was fun.

Even the boss fight at the end of the first city area was fun. (A little bit clever, good use of scenery, and I didn't have to retry it six times.) But then I realized that was the first city area, out of three. The game had pretty much shown me everything it had to offer, and it was only one-third complete.

I played a little way into the second area -- the missions were mostly repeats, and the baddies were now tough enough that fighting them was tedious. Sorry. This game is three times as long as it should have been.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

You know what? I enjoyed this one unreservedly. It's not that it was particularly innovative; it's an over-the-shoulder quarterstaff-swinging action-adventure game. (With running references to the Journey to the West, but those were understated enough to be resonance, not pastiche or rewrite. I expect most Western gamers never noticed them.)

No, this game was just built with thoughtfulness and care. The writing was -- okay, I won't say it was great writing, but it consistently sounded like people talking, right? People talking to each other -- people who had goals and desires and made decisions and sometimes joked around. When bad things happened in the story, I felt for the characters. Infamous and Castlevania didn't even come close to that.

Like this: the designers motion-captured all the cut scenes -- with the actors, you know, acting. Here's a short clip (youtube). The gag is straightforward (at the end they're all running for the escape pod in the back), but the whole way through, the two standing characters are alive. They've got facial expression and body language. They're part of the scene.

(I found out after playing that the protagonist was voiced and, er, motioned by Andy Serkis. He also co-directed the cut scenes, I believe. So no surprise that he set a high standard; the surprise is that a videogame project gave that much priority to acting in the first place.)

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Doodpants (Jun 24, 2011 at 8:28 PM):

Sorry to say, but Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is so totally not a Castlevania game. If this is your first one, then you still have never played a Castlevania game.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that you would like a real Castlevania game any more than this one, because they're decidedly old-school platformy with very little story.

Andrew Plotkin (Jun 24, 2011 at 11:40 PM):

Sure, that's fair. Like I said, I like 3d action games and platformers. 2d platformers (which seem to be the hallmark of the Castlevania series) don't excite me much, although I'll play a twenty-minute one on the web.

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