Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Hour With World of Warcraft

My sister has been having persistent issues with WoW such as Blue Screens of Death, crashes to the desktop, etc. At this point I think it has to do with the particular combination of hardware in her computer, since no amount of software updates have managed to take care of it. The annoying thing about them is that the problems never seem to happen immediately. My sister plays for an hour or more, and then it will suddenly crash. It's hard to test if my ministrations have had any effect. A few days ago, I went over to her house to take another crack at the problem. Instead of trying some things and then leaving immediately, I decided to try playing and see if I could reproduce the problem. The added bonus to this was that it kept me from having to help my sister with frantic preparations for a Christmas party the day after.

My sister has commented on the fact that I seem to know a decent amount about the game even though I had never played. This is because of the massive number of gaming sites I read. I'm bound to pick things up as time goes on. I've also learned things just listening to my sister talk about the game. But as with any game, you have to play to really be able to talk about it. At least now I can say I've played it.

I rushed through the character creation process because I just wanted to get in and start playing. I chose to play as a Tauren, a race that looks like a bunch of Minotaurs. I pretty much chose them because I had never heard of them while reading things about the game. Since I rushed through the screens, I missed the part that let me choose my class, so I ended up being a straight up warrior. My guy had a big two handed hammer on his back, which I figured I could live with. After a short, though unskippable, cutscene describing the Taurens, I found myself in the middle of a small village made up of tents with various merchants inside. Guards wandered around, along with other new and low-level characters like me. In front of me was another Tauren with far more elaborate clothing than what I was wearing. He also happened to have a gold exclamation point floating above his head. I figured that this meant I could talk or interact with him in some way. I was right, and he gave me my first quest!

As far as RPG quests go, this was about as stereotypical as you could get. Bring back seven feathers and seven of something else from the creatures wandering the nearby plain. I don't remember what they were called, but it doesn't really matter. The first thing I think is "Why seven?" Is that a special number? Why not ten? Or fifteen? It seemed somewhat arbitrary. So I go forth from the village, ready to pillage the countryside. I encounter my first creature and attack. My first encounter with combat in the game was less than satisfying. The animations were relatively simple, and there was no sense of weight or impact when you hit your foe. It seemed to be somewhat turn based since I would attack, then the creature, then me again, and so on. He fell beneath the blows of my hammer nonetheless and I searched its corpse for the items I needed. Yay, a feather! But not the other item I needed (I can't remember what else I was supposed to find). But I did get a couple cracked eggs! So I needed to kill more than just seven. I understood right away that this was a grind. Keep killing hapless monsters until I get what I need and, hopefully, level up in the process.

Eventually I killed enough creatures to get what I needed and headed back to the village. The guy was pleased and let me choose a piece of armor for myself. It seemed like a pretty good upgrade, and he had another quest for me. Kill ten cougars and bring back their furs! Ugh. Ok. So I went and did that. At one point my health was somewhat low, and a person with a higher level druid character wandered by and healed me. I thought that was nice of him. He had nothing to gain by it as far as I knew. I brought back the required number of furs and got another piece of armor. I was given a new quest to go find a missing woman who had wandered from the village.

Instead of following through with that right away, I started exploring the village and selling the various bits of crap I had accumulated from my monster massacre. I was able to get a few nice weapons. I also saw several characters wandering around with the gold exclamation point floating above their head, so I got a few more quests. There was another kill this many of that quest, but one person wanted me to deliver a package to a town to the north. Another person wanted me to go speak to a hermit to begin my rite of passage in the tribe. So I had a few options available to me now. I started off after the missing woman and found her nearby at a well. I walked back to the quest giver, but apparently I didn't read carefully when I was talking to her and was supposed to give him a pitcher of water. So I walked back to the old woman, got the pitcher, and walked back and delivered it.

The first couple of quests were less than inspiring, but once I finished the missing woman quest I started to get sucked in more. I began looking for the village to the north to deliver my package. While wandering the countryside I killed random beasts that I encountered, many of them more formidable than what I had encountered previously. I learned how to use some spells to help me out, and it was a real rush to take out a level 7 monster with my level 2 Tauren. I started gaining experience and leveling up. After delivering the package and selling more stuff, I started to finally notice what it was about the game that makes it more of a lifestyle for some people. Getting new gear and money for each quest was nice. The rewards were immediate. The little jingle and animation that played when I leveled up became something I looked forward to. The quests were short and relatively easy to accomplish, at least up to that point. I started thinking to myself "one more quest" or "one more monster."

It was at that point that I stopped.

I had quickly grasped the interface and gameplay mechanics, and it was slightly disturbing to see how little time it took for the game to sink its hooks in my brain. I've had this happen with a couple games in the past, and they usually kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. I didn't think my sister would appreciate me hanging out in her basement all night. So I walked away wanting more, which is what I suppose the game's developers were hoping for. I have no intention of setting up my own account. I can't see myself paying every month to play a game. However I can now say I spent some time playing the game, and came away with mostly good impressions. It was an interesting experience.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Story and Character Driven Gaming

Six weeks since my last post. I'm really going to try harder to do this more often. Seriously, it's pathetic that I can't force myself to sit down and write something.

Lately I've been playing games that are heavily story driven. There are what might be considered more traditional types of games such as Tetris or Pac-Man, which are driven purely by their gameplay mechanics. If you move up the scale slightly, you have games like Super Mario Brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog. A wisp of a plot is there, but often you'll only find it by reading the manual. As you keep going up the scale measuring relevance of plot to the game, you start getting into games like Assassin's Creed and at the farthest extreme are games like Half-Life and Knights of the Old Republic. At this far end the story is developed simultaneously with, or even before, the gameplay. These tend to be the kinds of games I gravitate towards.

A lot of games that have recently come out try for a cinematic experience. Call of Duty 4's sole goal seemed to be to place the player into an intense and almost overwhelming action movie-ish war scenario in a modern setting. In my opinion, it does this almost flawlessly. The game starts with a coup in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that you view from the first person viewpoint of the deposed leader. It ends in slow motion, with the player dramatically (melodramatically?) taking out the coup's mastermind. In between is urban warfare, a nuclear blast, and heart pounding stealth action. It's a relatively short and self contained story. It's short enough to truly feel like an interactive action movie where you get to play the hero.

Games like Half-Life might be better compared to a TV show. There are over half a dozen games in the Half-Life universe. Some are part of the "main" story while others tell peripheral stories from other viewpoints. All of them take the time to develop their characters over time. I'm not a huge fan of most of what's on television, but of the shows I do enjoy, part of what I like is how the main characters are fleshed out over time. In some ways they become like old friends who you've grown to understand over time. Long series, or long games like those in the role playing genre, feel like this. Like other forms of fiction, you start to care about these companions and grow concerned about what happens to them. This is obviously something that's different for every game and every player, but for many the reason they keep playing is to find out what happens next to these people. An example from my own experience is a scene from Half-Life 2: Episode One.

At the beginning of Half-Life 2 you meet Alyx Vance, the daughter of Eli Vance. Eli Vance is one of the scientists you encounter in the original Half-Life. She's tough, smart, and funny. Notably, she's not hyper sexualized like most games portray women. In Episode One she becomes a valuable companion as you make your way through the game. She's highly effective at taking out enemies with you, she makes comments about the situation that are alternatively funny and insightful, and she cares about what happens to you. Up to this point, every sidekick I had ever been stuck with in a game usually did more harm than good. They tended to make me want to kill them myself rather than continue on with them. This was not the case with Alyx. She was someone I enjoyed having around. About 1/3 of the way through Episode One you and Alyx escape from an enemy installation on a train. As the train starts moving Alyx realizes that the car you're in is filled with caged humans who have been reduced to blind, insane slaves. There's a loud noise, the lights go out, and the train derails. When the lights come on, you're at one end of the train and Alyx is at the other. The cages have fallen over and the slaves are mindlessly screeching and screaming. Alyx is pinned beneath one of the cages with a slave biting and clawing at her face. You have to make your way to the other end of the car and pull the cage and its screeching contents off of her so she can climb out. There's an opening in the side of the car, and you climb out with Alyx following behind. Ahead is a door leading away from the area. You start moving towards it.

"Hold on a second."

Hmm? I turned around. There's Alyx, the zombie slaying badass who's accompanied me through a dozen or so hours of game, slumped against the wall and visibly shaken by what's just happened. A shriveled, screeching, shell of a person just tried to kill her, and she was helpless to do anything about it. I felt bad for her. This digital character, whose only link to reality is the voice actress and the person used to model her face, was someone I cared about and wanted to look after as much as she did for me. I wanted to comfort her somehow and was frustrated at the fact that the game had no way to allow me to do this. I rarely get attached to characters in a 90-120 minute movie. It happens slightly more often in TV shows, but it's still not common. Somehow a game was able to wring out genuine emotions from me other than frustration or the excitement. This is the kind of experience I want from all of my games.

I'm not saying that I ignore games like Tetris. Games that rely solely on gameplay are great and are among my favorites. But I'm a huge proponent of the idea that games can also tell meaningful stories about real people. For the most part, the primary driver of most games is violent conflict. Whether it's a first person shooter like Half-Life or an intricately plotted RPG like Mass Effect, the primary gameplay is combat. I'm hoping that within the next five years or so we'll see games that at least present other options as resolutions to problems, or make them the only options. No guns allowed. Storytelling in games is still in its infancy, and as the medium matures I'm hoping that developers and designers come up with novel ways of using games to present an interesting narrative. Where's the gaming equivalent of Forrest Gump or A History of Violence? Hopefully we'll see it soon.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Testing Posting from Microsoft Word

Supposedly you can post from directly within Word now, so that's what this is! Neat!

Why I Love Half-Life

The latest installment in the amazing Half-Life series is out as part of The Orange Box from Valve. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the continuation of the story from Half-Life 2: Episode 1, which was a continuation of Half-Life 2. Silly naming convention, but the games are awesome.

I love how the games have the consistent goal of making you feel as if you're in your own action movie. What makes this work for me is the perfect choices they make in where to put music. All the games have these memorable moments in particular that stand out because of the awesome action music that starts at just the right time. In HL1 it was your first firefight with the soldiers. In HL2 it was the beach assault on Nova Prospekt right after you gain control of the antlions. In Ep1 it was when you and Alyx mow down zombies with shotguns in the hospital. In Ep2 it's the final part of the turret vs. antlion battle when the Vortigaunts show up. I love the more traditional scores from many games such as Elder Scrolls and Halo, but Half-Life's sparingly placed techno beats elevate those moments to true action hero awesomeness.

The various sounds are part of the experience. When I heard the suit's Geiger counter go off in this latest episode, a big grin appeared on my face. The weapon sounds are instantly recognizable, as are many of the voice actors and other sound effects. The Halo games have many familiar sounds throughout, but they don't give me that warm fuzzy feeling that Half-Life does. I don't know if that was intentional or not, but it works wonderfully in my case.

So overall I guess a big part of what makes Half-Life such a favorite of mine is the audio experience. You can tell that they've spent a lot of time on that portion of the game.

The other part of what makes these games amazing are the characters. Valve has spent a considerable amount of time on the AI and character animations for the people who accompany you through the Half-Life 2 saga. They also have amazing voice actors to give life to these characters. The original Half-Life had pretty good enemy AI for the time, but nobody accompanied you throughout the game. Through all of the Half-Life 2 games, there are recurring characters that you grow to care about. In Episode 1 especially, the character of Alyx is the best AI companion I've ever had in a game. She's written very well, and is genuinely helpful when battle hordes of zombies and soldiers. After a rather horrifying experience, she stops and almost breaks down. It made want to give her a hug and tell her everything will be fine. No other game has made me emotionally invested in my AI companions. The other characters are also interesting, and while not all of them are likable, they're all memorable. Episode 2 has at least two gut wrenching scenes involving these characters.

Anybody who calls themselves a gamer needs to play these games.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Teh Haloz 3

Well that was an incredibly short lived streak. Oh well.

I finished Halo 3 today, a little over a week after getting it. This time I played on Heroic difficulty, and it was challenging but overall a fun experience. It was definitely more of the same, but that didn't bother me. There were new weapons that took some getting used to but nothing that really surprising. Story spoilers now commencing...

Storywise, the trilogy was wrapped up pretty well. There were many nice nods to the first game that made me glad to have played it instead of just jumping in to this first one. The first two games had you stopping Halo rings from firing, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the galaxy. This game finally let a ring fire, though it had a much more localized effect. You're finally able to kill a robotic being from the first and second game who alternately helps and hinders you throughout all the games. The grizzled sergeant finally meets his end. The Flood is stopped, and the Covenant defeated. Pretty much every story thread was dealt with in some fashion.

Some of the problems still remain. Backtracking still makes a few appearances, and once again there are few audio options, so it's easy to miss dialog while playing. There are subtitles during cutscenes, at least. The difficulty level fluctuated pretty wildly at times. Some areas were a breeze, even on Heroic, while some areas were incredibly tough. During these parts I got the sense that these had been designed to play through on Coop as opposed to single player. In the last third of the game there are two massive battle tanks called Scarabs that you have to take down. This took many tries and I was only able to beat it through a great stroke of luck. It would have been much easier if I had had even one person playing with me. Having a full team of four players would have been a breeze.

I'm not sure what else to say about it. It was fun, which is the most important thing. I hope that I can play through it on Coop one day, but I doubt that'll happen.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Teh Haloz 2

As of tonight I'm three for three in my contiguous days of writing goal.

My overall feeling toward Halo by the time I was finished playing was that it felt like work. It did have some good things about it, but I doubt I'll ever pick it up again. Once I was finished with that, it was time to move on to Halo 2.

My first reaction to Halo 2 was that the graphics were MUCH better than the original. I've always found it fascinating that when a new console comes out, the graphics on the first generation of games for that system often don't look much better than the latest offerings on the previous console. However, if you jump ahead a few years and see how the games are looking, you'll see that there is an enormous leap in quality and overall graphical shininess. Developers just need the time to figure out how to unlock all that power. Halo 2 proved this handily.

The biggest difference I noticed right away was the introduction of dual wielding. One handed weapons could now be held in both hands, instantly doubling your firepower. The trade off is that you're unable to use grenades. I had trouble adjusting to using both triggers on the controller to fire, so after a short time i gave up using it and switch to the tried and true weapon and grenade formula from the first game. I was forced to switch back to dual wielding at the first boss battle. An enemy on a jetpack flits around a large room while two holographic copies do the same. The problem with the copies is that they do just as much damage as the real one. After several tries I realized that I simply wasn't doing enough damage in the time I had. Plus, the enemies were also dual wielding and were doing too much damage to me in a short time. After deciding to dual wield myself, it took a few more tries before I was successful. Once a new race of enemies called the Brutes were introduced I found myself using dual wielding again much more often. The Brutes soaked up bullets like a sponge and there weren't enough grenades to go around for everyone, so dual plasma rifles became my preferred method of exterminating them once i ran out of explosives.

The second, and biggest, change from the first game is that the story switch perspectives between the Master Chief and a character known as the Arbiter. The Arbiter is a member of one of the Covenant races that you spent the first game slaughtering. The story of Halo 2 is more complex than in the first game, and much of this is accomplished by the fact that you now see the enemy Covenant from their own point of view. The Arbiter and his race are eventually betrayed by the Covenant's leaders and end up joining human forces. While this made the story of Halo 2 more interesting to me than Halo's, the story broke down near the end. The perspective switched suddenly back and forth between the characters and I had trouble knowing where exactly I was. The Arbiter levels were actually easier to follow than the Master Chief's. In the last third of the game I thought that the Master Chief and the Arbiter were on different parts of the Halo ring world. Later, through Wikipedia, I found that the Master Chief was actually on a Covenant city-ship. The levels at the end finished abruptly and felt like there was more to do than I got to play. Then there was the sudden end to the game itself. This didn't bother me much because Halo 3 was of course coming out the next week, but I can see why people playing it when it came out would be upset. The game didn't end, so much as just stop.

Playing the Arbiter was fun at first, but I soon came to dread the levels played as him because they usually involved fighting the Flood. It was obvious that they weren't as hard as the first game, but they were still a downright annoying enemy to have to deal with. It wasn't until late in the game that Master Chief had the (dis)pleasure of dealing with the Flood. The one good thing about these levels is that the Arbiter had a kick ass energy sword that dispatched swift death to the Flood, and all other enemies as well. It almost made up for the frustration of dealing with them in the first game.

The first level of the game was surprisingly tough, but overall the game felt easier than the first. I was playing on Normal difficulty, and it brought back the satisfaction that I had been missing while playing Halo on Easy. The challenge was there, and there were parts where I got stuck, but it once again felt fair. There WAS a way to get through the tough battles as long as you had the skill and didn't mess up. It wasn't just luck that was propelling you through the tough parts. There were new weapons to master and each had their tradeoffs. I often found myself returning to old favorites from the first game, but I found uses for just about all of them.

There was much less copy/paste level design in this game than in the first one, though it was still there in spots. It had few open areas for the kind of open ended "arena" type battles that the first game had. Hallways leading to rooms leading to hallways seemed to be the more prevalent level design choice in this game. There was more variety to the levels though, and for the most part I didn't find myself getting bored with each level like in the first game.

Overall I had more fun in Halo 2 than Halo. I'm apparently in the minority, but the improved graphics, variety in levels, switch in perspectives, new weapons, and tweaked difficulty level all combined to make Halo 2 an overall better experience for me. Except for the storytelling, just about every aspect of the game was an improvement on its predecessor.

I think I've decided to hold off on talking about Halo 3 until I actually finish it. So.. until next time.....

Monday, October 1, 2007

Teh Haloz

I'm going to try to write something here every day if I can, even if I'm not feeling particularly inspired to do so. I figured I'd start with my limited experience with the Halo craze that has been rekindled with the release of the third installment.

I bought my Xbox 360 in December 2005, about a month after it launched. It was my first console since the Sega Genesis. In the couple of years before buying it, I had begun to get more interested in computer games and had built a high end gaming PC. I had also started reading various gaming websites like Joystiq and Shacknews. Information about the new Xbox was starting to come out and I closely followed all of it. This was more because of the constant flow news about it rather than any great interest on my part. The Wii and Playstation 3 were still a year away from release.

Between my time with the Genesis and 360, my time with game consoles was mostly limited to kiosks in stores and occasional encounters with friends' consoles. I missed out on the Dreamcast, Saturn, N64, Playstation 1 and 2, Gamecube, and the original Xbox. When Super Mario 64 came out with its newfangled three dimensional graphics, I had a very hard time figuring out the controls when I tried the game in stores. My first "real" experience with a console since the Genesis was when my boss let me borrow his Xbox, along with the game Halo.

I of course knew about Halo. It was Microsoft's flagship title for the Xbox. I suffered through the massive hype train that steamrolled through everything for the launch of Halo 2. The first day sales statistics for Halo 2 ($125 million!!) were burned into my brain simply because I read it everywhere. It was largely irrelevant to me though because I didn't own an Xbox and had no particular desire to.

One day, for reasons I don't remember, my boss brought in his Xbox that he had bought for his grandson. During lunch a group of us hooked it up to a projector and took turns playing. My boss told me he had never gotten comfortable with the controls, and as I attempted to play I could understand why. I had spent the past few years playing first person shooters on the PC with a keyboard and mouse. Playing with two analog sticks on a handheld controller was like trying to learn a foreign language. Despite that, I managed to have fun, and asked to borrow the Xbox for the night. That night saw several hours of me struggling to get comfortable with the controls and fighting for my life against hordes of aliens bent on my destruction. It wasn't anything life changing for me, but it was fun. Fun is the important thing, after all.

In December 2005 I found that the hype about the Xbox 360 had won me over. The games looked fun and the features of the console itself were cool, so I found myself at the local Best Buy three hours before it opened so I could secure myself a place in line. They had 15 available that morning, and I was number 8 in line. I believe I walked out with Call of Duty 2 and Kameo: Elements of Power as my first steps into the next-gen video game world. A few months later I had finished with those games and was smack in the middle of the post-launch release draught. There being nothing else I was interested in at the moment, I decided I may as well pick up Halo. It felt like one of those games that you have to have if you own an Xbox. Halo's Master Chief is to Microsoft what Mario is to Nintendo, for better or worse.

I began playing from the beginning again. It was still fun, but as I got farther in the game I found myself not being pulled in as much as I had hoped. Everything about the game felt solid and the battles were satisfying, but I didn't spend moments at work or in the shower thinking about the game. Around this time I believe Oblivion came out and promptly grabbed hold of all of my gaming time. Around a year later I picked Halo up again from where I left off and got far enough to run into the infamous repetitive copy/paste level design. I didn't get too worked up about it but it was painfully obvious. The build-up to the Flood was well done. Seeing the bodies of alien enemies piled up in a hallway with their bright blue blood smeared all over the walls, then watching the recording of the human marines vainly try to fight this new enemy was a highlight of the game. Eventually, though, I began to reach a painful conclusion: fighting the Flood was not fun. The tiny small forms that swarmed you were annoying, the exploding form that spewed the aformentioned tiny forms were aggravating because the explosions killed me instantly, and the melee fighters were frustrating because they moved fast and did an incredible amount of damage.

Before the Flood showed up I had been fighting the alien Covenant forces. The comical Grunts, quick Elites, and shielded Jackals complemented each other with their different fighting styles. Battles were intense but immensely satisfying in victory. Tossing plasma grenades and using the Covenant's own plasma rifles in open ended battles was a visceral experience, and while I tended to die often I never got frustrated or felt like the game was being unfair. Battles never played out the same way twice in replays because the enemy AI was generally very good. The Flood, however, felt like dumb pixels whose only advantage was sheer numbers. They swarmed in vast numbers and the game got to the point where it lost the Fun. I set it down.

Fast forward to about a month ago. The Halo 3 hype was (and still is) at full steam. Having just finished BioShock and having no other games to occupy my attention, I decided to once again see what the fuss was about. I started from the beginning again but blew through it on the easiest difficulty. I noticed that the battles were far less satisfying. They were too easy. The Flood were more manageable but were still aggravating. As I got further in the game the cookie cutter level design became even more prevalant. Overall the game just felt like work on this playthrough. I did finish though. I made a more conscious effort to follow the story, but the game didn't do a very good job of telling it. I got the gist though.

This is taking far longer to write than I thought, so I will continue tomorrow. Halo 2 and 3 will be discussed!

Sunday, September 30, 2007


It seems that Sean's Great Website Experiment has failed, due entirely to my laziness. I will attempt to be a little more diligent in posting the various things I'm up to and the games I happen to be playing (or want to play). None of the various templates here really excited me but i'm sure if I google around i can find some better ones. This one did seem Web 2.0ish enough though.
Copyright © Alethiometry | Theme by BloggerThemes & frostpress | Sponsored by BB Blogging