Sunday, December 28, 2008

Difficulty Done Right - Part 1

I don't enjoy overly difficult games. Challenging games are fine, but it's a rare game that strikes the perfect balance between just tough enough and soul crushingly difficult. I don't usually play games on "Hard" or whatever the game calls it. I'm usually more interested in the narrative and experience of playing than I am in conquering whatever sadistic difficulty level the developers put in. I want to have fun! It's a highly subjective thing, of course, but I doubt I will ever play Ninja Gaiden 2 or Ikaruga for this reason.

While I generally play on the default difficulty in games, there have been a few exceptions. Before Halo 3 came out, I read that the Heroic difficulty was the way the game was "meant to be played." This piqued my curiosity for some reason, and I decided to start the game at that difficulty setting. I found it painfully frustrating, but I was able to push through. After completing the story, I went back on Normal difficulty to get a few skulls I missed, and was struck at how much easier the game was. The difficulty curve from Normal to Heroic is steep, and I think I would have enjoyed the game more the first time if I had played on Normal. Heroic was hard enough that when I pushed through a level or particularly difficult fight, I simply felt drained, rather than accomplished. I did eventually complete the game on Legendary, but that was with a group of four people in co-op, making the game ridiculously easy.

The Xbox 360's Achievements are what really inspired me to start playing games on harder difficulties in the first place. I picked up my 360 a month after it launched, and one of the games I got with it was Call of Duty 2. I played and finished it pretty quickly on the default difficulty, but my friend at work started on Veteran difficulty and got every achievement in the game. I felt I had to match his accomplishment, so I began a new game.

For those of you who haven't experienced it, Veteran difficulty in the Call of Duty games is one of the most punishing and soul-crushing experiences in modern gaming you can have. You only take one or two shots before dying (just like real life!), enemies instantly spot you and are 99% accurate, and their endlessly spawning waves mean you can't simply camp in one spot and clear out everyone in an area. You end up learning exactly where the spawn points and script triggers are because you hve to play each segment over and over and over. I've had Call of Duty 2 since December 2005, and I still haven't finished it on Veteran. My Achievement list for the game is a timeline chronicling the periods of my life where I felt the urge to wallow in misery. Some of the dates in the list are separated by more than a year.

Because of experiences like that, I usually sample a game's hardest difficulty level, but rarely complete it. Other games don't have a difficulty setting, but rather ramp up in difficulty as the game progresses. Burnout Paradise is one example of this.

Burnout Paradise presents you with an open city for you to explore, with various events at every stoplight. Completing these events unlocks new and better cars for you to use. There are traditional races, Burning Route events where you have to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, Stunt Runs, Marked Man events where you must get to the finish line while being pursued by opponents trying to take you down, and Road Rage events where you try to take out as many of your competitors as possible in the time allowed without taking too much damage yourself. In addition to that, each road in the game has a Road Rule time to beat getting from one end to the other, and a Showtime mode where you must flip your car down the road causing as much damage as possible.

In short, there is a ton of things to do in the game. If a particular event is giving you a headache, try destroying everything in your path in Showtime. If you lose a race, try linking together three barrel rolls, a 720 degree flat spin, and three seconds of air time in a Stunt Run. There is a certain way to enjoy the game, and whining about having to drive back to the start of each event is not it. The game reduces frustration by giving you an abundance of things to do. Of course, as you near the end of the game, you find less and less to do, but by that point you're generally good enough that the final few events aren't too much trouble. Also, all events can be accessed at any time, even if they no longer contribute towards your progression. Road Rage is a great way to decompress after work.

While each event type requires mastering a particular set of skills, the most important thing is to learn the layout of the city. Compared to the previous game in the series, Burnout Revenge, the AI is more forgiving. Most racing games quickly become utterly intolerant of mistakes as you progress. In Paradise, you can crash once, twice, sometimes even three times in a race and still end up winning. The reason is that having a completely open city allows you to find your own route. The game will give you a path to follow, and it's the path that your opponents will take, but it's rarely the fastest or the best path to take. The biggest reward in the game is learning where the shortcuts, hidden jumps, and best paths are throughout the city. Since all events end at one of eight locations, you learn fairly quickly the main thruways of the game. The other necessary skills like learning how to handle each car and how to pull off the various tricks don't matter if you don't know the best path in which to use those skills.

Since learning the city is the key to winning the events, doing well in the game is much more on the player's shoulders than other games. It still relies on quick reflexes, and the regular traffic in the streets adds a bit of luck to everything you do. On the whole, though, balancing the use of boost and knowing when a turn and/or shortcut is coming up is the most important skill to have.

I think this is part of why I enjoyed Burnout Paradise so much. Unlike Revenge's brutal difficulty late in the game or Call of Duty's Veteran mode, I actually felt like I had a chance at doing well at the higher difficulty levels. The game challenged me and encouraged me to do well, instead of kicking me in the face repeatedly when I did poorly. If I can just make that turn and nail that jump this time, I know I'll come out ahead this time. Like I said before, the sheer amount of things to do means it's hard to be frustrated for long. It may be the only game that I've gotten 100% completion in, and it's in large part because the game made me feel like I could actually do so.

While writing this, Michael Abbott put a post up about Prince of Persia that dovetails nicely with this subject. In my next post, I'll give some thoughts about that game, and also talk about the game that I think has perfectly nailed the idea of multiple difficulties in games.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sony Impressions

I picked up a PS3 a few weeks ago. The number of exclusive games for the system currently and soon-to-be available finally pushed me to pool my resources and complete my current generation console collection. Last weekend I also scored a Playstation Portable from the random gift draw at my company holiday party. That, plus the consoles and my Nintendo DS, means that I have fully joined the current gen videogame club.

(I'm going to ignore the iPhone for now until a truly amazing game comes out for it.)

I'll say it right now: the PS3 is an intimidating console. Physically, it's an almost ridiculously large piece of metal and plastic. It seems to almost dominate my entire entertainment setup. It's dark, shiny monolith makes the Wii look utterly pathetic in comparison.

Even the interface conspires to make me feel like I've entered a club that nobody invited me to. The XMB is as black as the hardware that houses it. The number of options underneath each category, especially under the settings section, is dizzying. While I'm sure I'll get used to it, moving around seems to generally take a few too many button presses.

I downloaded Home and briefly played around with it. Going from the dark XMB to the bright white initial Home screen was jarring, and made me think that Home is even more cynical an attempt to reach the Wii crowd than the 360's Avatars. It even features the silly "soothing" music that the Avatar editor has, and that both are again imitating from the Wii.

The controller itself is a mixed bag. Like the PS2 controller, the DualShock 3 feels too small and light in my hands. The d-pad and shoulder buttons are much much better than those on the 360 controller. Seriously, Microsoft. Just license the d-pad patents from Nintendo and Sony. It's worth it. Wireless is of course nice, and even better is not having to buy batteries or rechargable battery packs to keep the juice flowing.

Trophies and the online community integration are pale shadows of Microsoft's offerings, of course. No surprises there.

Of course, games are why we buy consoles. I picked up LittleBigPlanet with the console, and when I got home I immediately downloaded Super Stardust HD, Echochrome, Everyday Shooter, PixelJunk Eden, and Linger in Shadows.

LittleBigPlanet, unfortunately, has been disappointing. In Super Mario Galaxy, I pretty much always know how high, how far, and how fast Mario will jump at any particular time. In LBP, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how Sackboy will behave at any particular time. He builds up momentum incredibly quickly, so sometimes it'll seem like I'll make a jump, only to slide right off the other side of a platform. Sometimes I'll hit the jump button and he simply refuses to do anything. Moving objects are particularly frustrating, as often times Sackboy will land cleanly but then slip off, often to his firey or watery doom. It can also be hard to tell when you need to move forward or backward in order to catch a ramp or other object. I think it's great that Media Molecule have made such a full featured level editor, but the underlying game just doesn't seem to completely work as a platformer.

I've only played Super Stardust HD once so far. The graphics are great, and the various weapons and enemies are fun. However, I found my thumbs constantly slipping off the sticks during the frantic movement and shooting. I think most of that comes from not being used the controller, and trying to cope with its small size.

Echochrome is an interesting case. Having levels based on M.C. Escher drawings is a neat idea, but the graphics are so sparse, and the music so conducive to drowsiness, that the only real stimulation the game offers is the puzzle solving itself. While the 5 laws the game revolves around are interesting, they don't carry the game enough for me. The harder levels just require more convoluted combinations of the 5 laws. The game reminded me of reading a college textbook: an overall dry experience.

I really like Everyday Shooter, even though I'm really bad at it so far. It's mostly the music. It's catchy and memorable, like Geometry Wars' music. I've managed to get to the third level after half a dozen tries, but I'm not giving up yet. Figuring out how to chain points in each level adds a nice bit of puzzle solving to the initial playthroughs of each level.

PixelJunk Eden is as good, and frustrating, as I've read. I love the art, flinging around each garden is soothing, and it's also likely to induce streams of profanity when I tumble all. The way. Down. I haven't gotten out of the first garden yet, but my only complaint so far is that it seems a bit repetitive. Get one spectra, then two, then three, and so on. Maybe that changes in later gardens.

Linger in Shadows was pretty interesting, though it left me confused and slightly depressed each time I played. I feel like it stopped rather suddenly, and I wish I knew what happens next. Perhaps there's some hidden method of unlocking more content? The color palette, the look of the strange flying robot, and the flowing blackness reminded me very strongly of Shadow of the Colossus, which is no bad thing. Even though it's just supposed to be an interactive art piece, it made me wish it was a full game.

Overall I'm happy with my purchase. I think I'll be picking up Uncharted: Drake's Fortune next. It's supposed to be one of the best games on the PS3, so hopefully it's worth the purchase.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

(Re)Discovering the Joy

When the shape of this holiday season's videogame release schedule began to come into focus a few months ago, I promised myself that I wasn't going to obsessively get every single game. For one thing, my wallet simply couldn't handle the vast flood of games coming out. More importantly though, I was trying to keep from rushing from game to game. I wanted to take my time and not feel pressured to play every game the instant it's out.

To some degree, I succeeded. I didn't get Gears of War 2. I decided to hold off on Fable 2. I asked for Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider Underworld for Christmas. At the time, I didn't have a PS3 (by the way, I have a PS3 now!) so I wasn't factoring in those games. I also wasn't really paying attention to my Wii, so I ignored any games that were out or coming out for it.

I ended up getting Rock Band 2, Too Human, Silent Hill Homecoming, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Mirror's Edge, and Dead Space. I also played Sam and Max Season One on the Wii. The first three were a bit spaced out over time, but the last four hit within days of each other. I played pretty much non-stop, and Fallout 3 took up a massive number of hours in particular. A couple weeks ago I finished slogging through Dead Space and was feeling pretty burned out on videogames in general. Except for Dead Space, I loved all of those games. But the tsunami of new releases still left me tired and not particularly inclined to pick up a controller any time soon.

After several days of binging on The Office and generally forgetting that my Xbox 360 played games, I began eyeing my stack of unplayed games. The chance to catch up on those older games and the fact that they weren't the latest hot thing appealed to me greatly. After narrowing my choices down to Super Mario Galaxy, Final Fantasy XII, and restarting Wind Waker, I held an epic Twitter and IRC chat election in which Mario emerged victorious.

I'm so glad he did, too.

Back in the summer when I bought the game, I played the first few levels then got distracted by other games and didn't touch it again. Now, I'm playing through with a vengeance. I'm 40 stars in and just rescued Luigi from the haunted mansion. The exuberantly bright colors are a relief after the next-gen browns and greys of Fallout 3 and Silent Hill. Problably more than many gamers, I need a story to really motivate me to play most games. Galaxy's plot, while threadbare, has just enough meat on its bones to keep me motivated to play its levels repeatedly to get all the stars. Princess Rosalina is a pleasingly mysterious figure who I'm curious to learn more about. So far I'm frankly stunned at the amount of creativity that has gone into each of the levels. Not once have I encountered a galaxy or planet and thought that it was just a rehash of a previous one. I feel like every pixel of the game is made to bring joy into its players' lives.

While getting reaquainted with my Wii, I also saw that I had some spare Wii points available. After poking around the WiiWare selection, I decided to finally give World of Goo a try. Michael Abbott's posts in October really piqued my interest and convinced me to get the Wii version. The first time I played it was when my sister and brother in law were over visiting. I was once again stunned at how amazing and purely FUN the game was. I love the music and desperately wish there was a soundtrack available. The art is unique to any game I've played before and solving the puzzles is incredibly satisfying to me.

Since my sister was over, we brought out the extra controller and played cooperatively together, with her husband providing backup. Playing local co-op in games isn't something I'm used to. Since I didn't grow up with consoles, I'm used to either playing by myself or hopping online to play something cooperatively. Playing together with my sister, working out the puzzles together, grabbing a goo ball when the other drops it, and arguing over the best course of action has made the game far more fun than it ever would have been if I had just tried it myself. Some of the more difficult puzzles were made much more bearable by the presence of another person to share the frustration. It's a new experience for me. Even when playing Rock Band with friends and family, I didn't feel the same sense of shared enthusiasm for doing well together. After they left I played a few more levels by myself, but it just wasn't the same. Now I only play when they're over. For me, it's simply the way the game is supposed to be played.

These games have been great palate cleansers after the flood of high profile games. They've reminded me that I still primarily play games for fun and brought the joy of picking up the controller back. The added baggage of deep, complicated stories, hyper-competitive multiplayer, and furthering the graphics race has been stripped away to a simple set of rules that are used in a multitude of unique and creative ways. It's nice to get back to basics.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Should Games Have Content Filters?

I never got around to posting it here, but I got a position writing at Hardcore Christian Gamer, aka HCG. It's a volunteer thing, of course. It's Yet Another Games site, of which there are hundreds or thousands on the Internet, so it's not like anyone is getting paid to write for them. The community is growing though, and I enjoy doing it during my free time at work. It gives me a way to work on my writing skills and learn how to write for a specific audience. I write the occasional review, and post news up throughout the day.

My evangelical Christian days are behind me, for the most part, but I'm still sympathetic, I suppose. The range of beliefs among the community is pretty wide, and some of the discussions on Christianity get pretty heated. One topic that comes up fairly often is whether or not a particular game has language and gore filters on it. The Gears of War games have these filters in them. Gore is changed to bright sparks. The language filter apparently only blanks out the f-bomb, which disappoints many in the HCG forums. I've heard that Call of Duty: World at War also has some sort of filter. Some won't even play games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band because of some of the lyrical content in the songs. Others can tolerate most bad language, but get upset when a character takes the Lord's name in vain.

My first reaction to questions about filters in these games was, "Isn't the gore and language part of the point of these games?" Taking them out leads to an experience as watered down as an R rated movie shown on network TV, or a vulgar rock song played over the radio. The tune is there, and so are most of the lyrics, but it loses its impact.

This of course brings up other questions like, should there even be such a thing as "bad" words? Or, why is the violence okay but the language not? I occasionally see someone start a thread on other forums asking about content filters in games, and the responses are usually something like, "Go play crappy movie games if you don't like language." People looking for the fun of a certain game without the more questionable content are generally dismissed without a second thought.

I think, however, that if we ignore those questions and take the desire for tamer content at face value, it brings up some interesting issues. The gameplay and story are almost always mutually exclusive in your typical triple-A game. The parkouring gameplay of Mirror's Edge could as easily have been featured in some kind of extreme sports game instead of the dystopian future it actually contained. The cover based, psuedo-platforming, shooting gameplay Gears of War could easily have been set in some sort of benign lasertag game. The underlying gameplay, and whether it's fun or not, is what keeps people playing. The gritty settings and characters of Gears of War are just an aesthetic choice by the developers.

Since videogames, in my mind, are more deliberately constructed than a song or a movie, I think they are more able to feature customized content. Like Gears of War, a game can be programmed to show either sprays of blood or sprays of bright sparks. A more text based game can feature alternate passages of text that don't feature the profanity that offends some people. It presents more of a problem for a game featuring full voice acting since it would be expensive to record to versions of dialogue for a significant portion of the script, but it's still doable. A movie on TV may feature jarring blanks in dialogue or, even worse, bad overdubs to add in a more "appropriate" word. A game just has to have a bit of code to swap in a particular piece of content depending on what the user chose. The RTS Company of Heroes apparently is an extremely fun game (I haven't played it myself) and can even be used to teach about WWII, but the language and gore in the game makes it something you may not want to expose your fifth grader to. The ability to turn that content off wouldn't take away from the gameplay or setting.

If these sorts of things can be added in, then a developer has broadened the audience for its game just that little bit more. It's impossible to please everyone, of course (Just the other day on the HCG forums, a mother was fretting over the presence of cheerleaders in the DS version of Madden 2009. Yes, the DS version.), but I don't think there's a good reason to simply ignore the sizeable population of people who would appreciate that sort of feature.

Incidentally, I also wish that some games were more liberal about the content they allowed. I've often wished that Harmonix would release a version of Rock Band that didn't censor the lyrics of the songs. Alanis Morrisette's You Outta Know loses some of its punch when the line is changed to "...and are you thinking of me when youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuher?" Let people have a choice, either way.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Oh Microsoft...

Last night, flush with the pride of performing my civic duty, yet tired from a typically uninspiring day of work, I sat down to lose myself in a few hours of Fallout 3. I loaded my save game file, made sure I was sneak mode, then began creeping forward.

Then something catastrophic happened.

The HUD was still displayed, but behind it was a distressing checkerboard pattern. The ambient sounds from the game seemed to be caught in a loop. The game itself was frozen. The guide refused to appear.

Perturbed, I got up, turned off the Xbox, then turned it back on. I was met with three flashing red lights surrounding the power button. My stomach dropped as I powered it off and on again. Still flashing red. I sighed, looked around the room for some unknown sign of hope or encouragement, then tried it once more. Ah hah! The boot-up animation is star... Oh wait, it's frozen again with that charming checkerboard pattern overlaying it. Hopes fading, I rebooted and once more gazed upon the infamous Red Ring of Death.

I've had this Elite for just over a year. It was my second 360. after my Premium model from 2005 stopped outputting video. Since it hadn't given me the RROD, and was therefore out of the original warrany, I decided to simply upgrade to a new Elite that was hopefully more reliable. I also bought Best Buy's 2 year replacement plan. It came in handy last night.

I packed everything up and drove to Best Buy. I was sadly bemused to see a teenager and his older relative in front of me in line also exchanging their broken 360 for a new one. While waiting for the Best Buy employees to process our returns, the teenager and I chatted and commiserated about our mutual console woes. Apparently his stopped working after he put in his friend's hard drive. That seems like an odd problem to have, honestly. Maybe he tried doing this while the console was on? I didn't think to ask him about it.

Anyway, the exchange went smoothly, though I did purchase a new replacement plan. It was certainly money well spent the last time. The new one is significantly quieter, which is nice. Also, the new one came bundled with Lego Indiana Jones and the game of Kung-Fu Panda. They were supposed to remove them but forgot. Bonus for me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ode to Mass Effect

Spoilers ahoy. Watch yourself.

Last year, one of my most anticipated titles coming out that holiday season was BioWare's epic space opera RPG, Mass Effect. I was looking forward to a space-based RPG as opposed to your typical swords and elves fantasy setting. I had recently finished their last RPG, Jade Empire, and enjoyed it immensely. Mass Effect's universe looked interesting, I love a good western RPG, so basically it looked like everything I could want.

I preordered the collector's edtion, and it was with great excitement that I fired up the game for the first time. The graphics were excellent and I loved the old-school synthesized style of the music.

And yet...

I started noticing issues. The game wasn't doing much to show me how to play. I had no idea until much later that you could add upgrades to weapons and armor. The combat in general was a bit bland. The Mako vehicle was extremely frustrating to drive. The optional planets were boring and lifeless, they contained the same three buildings ALL OVER THE GALAXY. When loading scenes and areas it sometimes took several seconds for the textures to finish streaming, making the game look like it belonged more on the N64 than the Xbox 360. Most of the time, the characters talking have no expression and fall squarely within the Uncanny Valley.

The main quest was the most compelling part. Tracking down Saren and unraveling the mystery of the Reavers and Protheans was exciting, and the story kept me wondering what was going to happen next. The final space battle against the Reaver ship amidst the Citadel was truly epic, and ranks as one of the few endings to a game that actually lived up to and exceeded everything that came before it.

I completed the game, happy, though slightly disappointed that the many issues detracted from what could have been a masterpiece.

And yet...

I am in the midst of my 5th playthrough, with my third character. The first 3 were with the same character, a female, leveled up to the max and trying the different good/evil conversation options and using a combination of biotic powers and short range weapons. The 4th was with a male soldier decked out with heavy weaponry. My current character is a female engineer, master of technological attacks.

Playing as a soldier is pretty boring. Doing so makes the combat into a substandard shooter. It's when you start using biotic or tech powers that the game gets interesting. Lifting an enemy into the air, then throwing him across the room, or better yet, off a cliff, never gets old. Hacking an enemy geth so he turns around and begins firing rockets at his friends is great fun.

More than anything, though, the universe and people inhabiting it continue to draw me in. BioWare went to a LOT of effort to flesh out the history and motivations of the various races, and of many of the characters you come across. It feels like a real world, with real people.

My favorite parts of the game are on the Citadel in the beginning and on the first part of Noveria, one of the main quest planets. The Citadel is scattered with quests. They're quick, but bring up a variety of situations for you to resolve. They often require a high conversation skill to get the best or most interesting resolution to the quest. Noveria, though, really showcases BioWare's writing ability and questmaking skills.

Noveria is a world controlled by amoral corporations doing research across the planet. The side quests are made so that it's very tempting to choose the mercenary, look-out-only-for-myself path. If you do your utmost to stay on the straight and narrow, there might not be any benefit whatsoever. No experience points, no money, nothing. Being evil, on the other hand, makes it possible to backstab and betray nearly everyone you come across. Agree to smuggle illegal weapons into the port for a merchant, then sell it directly to his customer. Agree to place a computer virus on a businessman, inform the businessman of the plot against him, then tell your contact you planted the virus AND demand more money. In 5 playthroughs, I'm still encountering new outcomes to these quests.

In addition to things like that, the companions you have with you can change how some conversations play out. The order you choose to do quests can change other quests. The back story you choose for you character changes some quests and adds completely new ones.

Basically, if you only play the game once, you're missing out on a fairly large amount of the content BioWare created.

So I suppose that explains why I keep coming back to the game. I still feel like I haven't really described some of the undefinable appeal this game has for me, but I think I got the gist across. Even with the flaws listed above, I truly love this game. It sweeps me away to another world, and it's a world I can lose myself in.

The Pile of Shame

I probably beat more of my games than the average person, but like everyone, there are games I own that I either haven't finished, or haven't even started. Without further ado, here is my list:

Final Fantasy X - I'm at the final boss fight, and can't beat him. I don't want to spend hours doing the necessary tasks to get the ultimate weapons, and all my characters are extremely high level. I just want to see how the game ends. I really loved this game until the point I'm at.

Final Fantasy XII - I would like to beat X before I start this one

Killer7 - Just havent gotten around to it

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker - I got stuck at the water temple. I really really liked the game. The art was fantastic, and it was my first Zelda game. The combat was a little clunky with the Gamecube controller, but everything about the game is great.

Resident Evil 4 - I know this is in people's top 10 game lists, but I HATED the controls. I also didn't like the fact that the zombies endlessly spawn

Super Mario Galaxy - I really like this game, but for whatever reason I don't really think about it much. It's just neglected and forgotten.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic - Excellent excellent game, but I was playing it on the 360 and the software emulation introduces a lot of sound popping and other problems. It made the game unplayable for me. I should start it again on the PC.

Xbox 360
Overlord - I really liked the demo, but for some reason had a hard time getting into the whole game. Basically I just got bored with it.

Hitman: Blood Money - I got this off Ebay for cheap. Played the intro level, and thought it was ok. Got stuck in the first mission and never went back. I doubt I'll ever finish this.

Viva Pinata - A very good game that nonetheless feels like too much work. I'm not a big fan of micromanagement in games and that's all this game is.

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl - This game is a little too hardcore for me. Very realistic weapon behavior, very difficult enemies, it's just very unforgiving. I liked the atmosphere, but it wasn't much fun to play.

Fallout/Fallout 2 - No excuse, really. I've started Fallout a couple times but haven't got far. There's not really time to play them before Fallout 3 comes out either.

Diablo/Diablo 2 - I've started Diablo several times and, like Fallout, haven't gotten far in that one either. It just doesn't suck me in for whatever reason. I have a feeling I'll like Diablo 2 better but I'd like to finish the first one.

I'm probably forgetting some, but those are the biggest offenders at the moment.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How Much Game You Want?

A few weeks ago, was looking for more writers. I threw my hat in the ring and submitted a few things. It appears that they didn't take me up on the offer, so I'll go ahead and post what I submitted.


How much game do we want in our games? How many hours of entertainment do we expect to get before we say that, yes, our money was well spent? Twenty hours? Forty? 100?

A frequent lament of gamers this generation is that games are becoming shorter. They yearn for the days of shooters with thirty hours of gameplay, and 100 hour epic RPGs. However, developers often claim that relatively few players actually get to the end of their games. Whether it’s because of uneven difficulty, boredom, or simply a lack of time, most people will never see the end of the adventure they’ve spent so many hours on. With this fact in mind, and the skyrocketing cost of producing triple A games, should developers continue making games that take weeks to complete?

There are a few ways developers extend the length of time we play their games. The most obvious way is adding a multiplayer component. For many gamers, multiplayer is the primary reason they buy a game. There are people who haven’t touched the single player campaigns in Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4. When the gameplay comes together just right, there are possibly hundreds of hours of enjoyment to be had in shooting strangers over the Internet.

Not everyone enjoys traditional multiplayer gaming, though. For some, the joy comes from experiencing a well done story. Developers make a choice on how long to make this story or campaign, but some have added ways to extend that experience through replayability. For some games, it’s nothing more than having multiple difficulty levels. Some games add optional collectibles to find. Collectibles add an incentive for exploring the game world thoroughly, and the best ones have a direct impact on the gameplay. Assassin’s Creed’s flags had no impact on the gameplay, but it did give the player an excuse to see parts of its cities that the story itself doesn’t take you to. Occasionally, these led to some beautiful vistas in the cities and kingdom. Crackdown’s collectibles were more satisfying, as finding the agility and hidden orbs improved your character’s stats.

Others add cooperative play to the mix. Playing with friends can make the most mediocre game more enjoyable. Throw in something like Halo 3’s skulls and campaign scoring, and you have multiple kinds of experiences to be had in the same story.

Let’s talk about the length of the story though. Whether playing alone or with friends, the length of a campaign, and whether or not it’s long enough, is a highly subjective but critical aspect of feeling as if you’re getting your money’s worth from a game. For me, the hours spent playing a game don’t matter to me as much as the feeling that they were hours well spent. Having just recently completed Okami, I can say that it was a great game. My main problem with it is that it’s so obviously padded for length that several times I contemplated giving up on it. Why did I have to fight many of the bosses twice? Why did I have fight one of them three times? It didn’t further the plot at all.

Some of my favorite games of the past few years have been relatively short affairs. Portal is the obvious example. Short, sweet, and as close to a perfect game as any I’ve yet played. I would have paid $60 for it. Call of Duty 4 has a fairly short campaign that could probably be beaten in one six hour sitting. Yet, it packed a more dense variety of locations, settings, and types of gameplay than many 40 hour “epics.” Half-Life 2: Episode One fixed my primary beef with its predecessor, Half-Life 2. For me, Half-Life 2 offered plenty of variety, but for the first two-thirds of the game it felt like each segment overstayed its welcome by an hour or more. On the other hand, once I hit Nova Prospekt, the game goes into overdrive for me and I don’t want to stop playing until I reach the end. Episode One, though, offered a dense variety of situations that lasted just long enough for me to feel satisfied, and so far it’s my favorite entry in the series.

As games and the consoles that play them get more expensive, this will become more of an issue. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of experimentation as far as pricing for downloadable titles on consoles. Five and ten bucks used to be the norm, but now we’re seeing fifteen and twenty dollar titles. Every gamer has a different idea of what a downloadable title is worth, so you get arguments over whether or not Braid is worth 1200 MS points. There’s the sense that XBLA, WiiWare, and PSN games aren’t “real” games because they’re so short. It makes more sense to me to judge a game’s worth on the overall experience though, not its length. Again, that’s a highly subjective thing to say, so I wouldn’t presume to force that viewpoint on other gamers. However, it may become a more common viewpoint out of necessity as the trend towards shorter games continues.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Your Love is Like Bad Medicine Company

I won Battlefield: Bad Company in a raffle. It's not something I would have bought on my own, but I had my pick of any game. This seemed like it would be a nice diversion for a week or so.

Having never played a Battlefield game, I wasn't too sure what to expect. This is the first game in the franchise with a true single player campaign, so as always, I was more interested in playing that than the multiplayer. Things have taken a surprising turn, however.

I started the game on Normal difficulty and immediately began giggling at the dialogue among the characters. The banter between the Sarge (squad leader), Sweetwater (soft spoken yet talkative techy), and Haggard (loudmouthed and talkative explosives expert) is highly entertaining. You play as Preston Marlowe, a bland and quiet new recruit to B Company. While my playable character didn't excite me, the rest of the characters gave me high hopes for the rest of the game.

Unfortunately, as soon as I actually started playing I started to have misgivings. The enemies blend into the scenery a little too well. This may be realistic, I dunno, but I became very frustrated when I was being shot at and couldn't find the person shooting at me. I ended up having to stand still and look for muzzle flashes, all while continually losing health. Thankfully, you can restore your health at pretty much any time, and while you do respawn when you die, any enemies you've killed are still dead. The shooting itself didn't really excite me either. So far, none of the weapons have had any real oomph to them. Perhaps later weapons will feel more deadly as I find them.

I jumped into the multiplayer with some friends to try it out, and at first it was as unfulfilling as nearly every other multiplayer shooter I've tried. As we all know, human opponents in a game are the bane of my existance, and I find the mindless killing of deathmatch to be boring. However, once I tried the sniper and demolition classes, something clicked. Much like the two Ghost Recon games on the 360, there is some undefinable quality about the game that makes me enjoy playing, even when I'm dying over and over. Playing as a run and gun class was typically frustrating, but being about to sit still and snipe, or sit still and fire rockets at vehicles, was much more fun. Maybe I should stick to that for all my multiplayer gaming.

I'll keep hacking away at the single player unless I get totally bored with it. However, if you're lucky, you may actually get the unique pleasure of playing a multiplayer game with me. Assuming you have the game, of course.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It Is Finished

Finally beat Okami. I may or may not have more thoughts on it later. For now, I'm going to bed.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Game Log - 8/11/08

100% in Burnout Paradise! Woohoo! Now to work on getting all 420 online challenges. I think I'm up to 184 completed so far...

Made significant progress in Okami over the weekend. I think I'll have it beat in one or two more sessions. I'm probably not going to bother trying to get 100% completion in the game. It would just take too long and I don't feel motivated to take that amount of time to do so. Next Wii game is Super Mario Galaxy. That should be some good silly fun.

Bought Braid, and I really like it, but some of those puzzles are brain busting... Truly an amazing game though. I can't imagine what it takes to design such fiendish puzzles.

Even though I got to the final boss and was promptly slaughtered, I may once again try to beat Final Fantasy X. But I'm also thinking of starting Final Fantasy XII. But then I hear that it's a 60 hour game. I'm losing patience with these so called "epic" games that are really more like 20 hour adventures unnecessarily padded out for length. I want to play Lost Odyssey on the 360, but am hesitant for the same reason. Plus, with these JRPGs in particular, I'm afraid that I'll be stuck in the same situation as I am in FFX. I don't want to spend all this time progressing, only to get stuck at the end, unable to actually beat the final ultimate evil. Perhaps that's how these things play out in real life...? Whoa, I think I just blew my own mind...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Zoom Zoom!

I haven't made much mention of it before, but I have become seriously hooked on Burnout Paradise.

It was a slow process. I hated the demo when it first showed up on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The open world environment was radically different from Burnout Revenge's traditional tracks, and the ever-present DJ Atomica made it feel as if I was trapped in a car with Ryan Seacrest. In real life, such a situation would call for smashing your car into oncoming traffic. In Burnout Paradise, you're ENCOURAGED to smash your car into oncoming traffic, yet doing so does nothing to make DJ Atomica shut his mouth. I deleted the demo and didn't give much more thought to it.

The thing is, I kept reading on message boards and chat rooms about how awesome the full game was. There was a constant stream of enthusiastic ravings about the game, and many of them were along the lines of "I hated the demo, but love the game now." So I finally procurred a used copy at a discount and got to exploring Paradise City.

In 6 or 7 weeks I've now logged between 60 and 70 hours total playtime, and have an 87% completion statistic. I've found the 400 fences to smash, the 120 billboards to jump through, and all 50 super jumps. I have nearly all the cars. It's addicting to upgrade my license, unlock new cars, and find new things in the city.

Perhaps most surprisingly for me is the fact that I actually play online in the game. Most of time it's with people I know, but there are 350 online challenges to complete, and sometimes you just need to find some strangers to do them with.

The latest update for the game, called Cagney, finally comes out on the 360 today. The PS3 players have had it for a few weeks now, but some last minute bugs have kept it from my desperate hands until now. It contains many bug fixes, and more importantly adds a host of multiplayer content to the game. I'm sitting here at work feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for the time when I can leave and play with all the new toys available to me. If you ever want to experience the rare joy that comes from playing a multiplayer game with me in something other than a co-op campaign, acquiring this game is probably your best bet.

Just thought I'd share that with you all.

(Supplemental, yet required, viewing: Zero Punctuation's take on the game)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Well That Was Different...

So after writing my last post about Okami, later that night I played some more. During my playthough, I was shrunk down to 1/1000th of my original size. I then had to infiltrate the imperial palace and track down why an evil mist was emanating from it. Turns out, the sick emperor was the source of the mist. So what do I do? Jump down his throat, fall down his esophagus, and fight a boss battle in his stomach, of course!

And, well...

That was awesome.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Watercolor Dreams

I picked up Okami for theWii, and it's been quite a fun experience. The motion controls are a little twitchy and take some getting used to, and your companion in the game, Issun, is mostly annoying. Everything else though is excellent. The graphics are gorgeous and really make me feel as if I'm walking inside a painting. The story is different enough from anything else I've played that it mostly feels fresh.

Here's the thing though.

I've played for around 21 hours or so. Very suddenly, without much warning, I was plunged into a pretty epic fight with the main antagonist. I was a little puzzled at this. As I progressed through the game I picked up various abilities that allow you to use your paint brush to perform different actions. There are 13 total actions, but at that point in the game, I had found 9. I also knew there was a whole other city that I hadn't gained access to. I thought that maybe the game gave you the option of finishing it without finding all of the powers and other content, which would have been very different from any other game I've played before. Alas, it was not to be.

I killed the bad guy, saved the day, everyone was celebrating. And then the game kept going. Apparently, some other evil wormed its way out of the original bad guy's rotting corpse and still needs to be put down. And to be honest, I'm not sure how inclined I feel to continue.

At this point, I feel like I've experienced the whole package. Sure, there are 4 more brush powers to find, but I looked the game up on GameFAQ's and it appears that I'm barely halfway through the game. What new stuff can there be to sustain another 20-30 hours of playtime? The story, being heavily influenced by ancient Japanese mythology, is different, but it still boils down to saving the world from the Great Evil. I've saved the world several times over at this point in my gaming life, so that's not a great motivator.

It doesn't help that while continuing into the next area, the Wii froze up about an hour after I had last saved my game. I thought only Xbox 360's came with that feature. :-(

Friday, July 4, 2008

Appreciating Older Games

I finally finished Metal Gear Solid. Pretty much all of my thoughts that I had on it here still hold true. I did end up restarting the game though. I found a guide and had a lot more fun because of it. I finally found a lot of the hidden items that made my life easier in the game. I also was able to take advantage of some shortcuts that were only available in the Twin Snakes remake of the game. Finding the tranquilizer sniper rifle made it so I didn't have to backtrack through the whole freakin game to find the regular sniper rifle. Also, using the hot and cold pipes in Metal Gear Rex's facility to change the key card speeded up the process of deactivating the nukes considerably. Of all the boss fights, the confrontation with Metal Gear Rex was the only one that felt like a true boss battle to me. The entire game has been building up Metal Gear to be this invincible walking battle mech, and now I finally was able to take it on. The only other boss fights I really enjoyed were the ones against Sniper Wolf.

As I've been replaying, Metal Gear Solid 4 has of course come out and the hype for it has been through the roof. There have been plenty of reviews about the game, all mentioning many of the same complaints I have about the first one. Another thing I've been reading lately are people's recollections of the original game. Many talk about how blown away they were by the fight with Psycho Mantis, where he reads your memory card, telling you the games you've played, and have to plug the controller into another port for so that he can't predict your attacks. I've also read people talking about how unbelievably epic it was to fight Sniper Wolf in the snow field, or to rapel down the communications tower while under attack from the Hind helicopter.

For me, the only epic moment I felt was fighting Metal Gear. Dodging the lasers, diving out of the way of missles, then quickly bringing up the Stinger to fire off a missle at the radome before running away was exciting. It makes me wonder if games as a medium are more difficult to appreciate when you try to go back and play older games. As technology moves inexorably forward, the things you can do in games increases and makes it tough to go back to something older. After playing Half Life 2, I was wishing older shooters had realistic physics. After playing FEAR, I was wishing Half Life 2 had melee combat.

The time in which we play these games certainly has a huge impact on how much we appreciate them later. As I've said before, I had no consoles between the Sega Genesis and the Xbox 360. Part of why I started playing Metal Gear Solid was to catch up on this famous franchise I had missed out on. It's very likely that had I played it when it originally came out, I would have been as blown away as anyone else. The context of the time in which a game is released is important. I'm convinced that the 2007-2008 timeframe will be looked on as an important time in games. Call of Duty 4, Portal, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 4, and GTA4 have all pushed storytelling in games forward to one degree or another. On the other hand, in 10 years a young player may decide to play Portal for the first time and wonder what the big deal is. I never played Chrono Trigger. It's apparently a classic RPG. It's coming out on the DS now. I'll probably pick it up. I have a feeling that I'll like it, but not be blown away. Then again, I played The Longest Journey long after it was originally released, and it's one of my favorite games of all time. So we'll see.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Why We Play

A few weeks ago I was working some pretty long hours compared to what I'm used to, and came home pretty tired and wanting to crash. Like most nights, I wanted to play some games, but I wanted something I could relax with. Looking at my shelf, I found very little that fit that requirement. Most everything I own are action games in one form or another. If I was at an earlier point in Final Fantasy X, I would have chosen that as its random battles are something you can take your time with. However, where I am now, each battle is a nail biting affair where I hope some monster doesn't get lucky and wipes out my whole party in one turn. I wasn't in the mood for a shooter. Burnout Revenge and Burnout Paradise can be somewhat cathartic when you're blazing through the streets at two hundred miles an hour. The problem is that it requires a high level of concentration and reflexes to avoid smashing into the obstacles in your way. I usually can't manage that even at the best of times. I finally settled on Rock Band. I played my favorite songs for a while on medium so the challenge was minimized. This worked admirably to destress me after work. In fact, after a while I bumped up the difficulty to hard and practiced that for a while.

It made me think about the kind of things I generally want from the games I play. I think more than anything, I want a well told story that sucks me in accompanied by gameplay that is addictive, intuitive, and, well, fun. I'm usually stressed out when I'm playing a game. Trying to survive a vicious firefight in Half-Life 2 is an exhilarating experience, and nothing is as thrilling and heartpounding as fighting an epic boss battle and coming out victorious. The key word there is heartpounding. While it may end with a smile on my face, I usually need to take a break and do something else before continuing after an experience like that.

A game like Burnout, Skate, or Rock Band usually has the addictive part down, at least at first. But the difficulty curve steadily (or not so steadily) increases as you progress. Eventually I don't have the patience to spend time getting good enough at the game to keep going, so I put it down and move on. They're fun, but they're not lasting experiences. Rock Band is a bit of an exception because there is a constant supply of new content to try.

I think my favorite games are ones that I don't actually remember playing. By that I mean that the story and characters were so amazing that I don't remember the actual gameplay. The Longest Journey is probably the best example of this. The only puzzles I remember are the incredibly frustrating and illogical ones. For the most part what sticks in my mind are the wonderful writing and characters that moved the plot along. Half Life 2: Episode One is another example of this. Alyx is the only AI companion in a game I've ever been happy to have along with me. In these and other games, I forget I'm playing a game and feel like I'm just along for a wonderful ride.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Successful Experiment is Successful

The Great Game Watching Experiment of 2008 was, I think, mostly successful. We got all the way through Call of Duty 4 on the easiest difficulty. Even on that difficulty, there are parts of the game that were fairly difficult. It's interesting when you compare it to Halo or Half-Life and see the wildly different levels of difficulty that make up the so-called "Easy" setting.

Erin and Dan seemed to have trouble following the plot in certain points. COD4 in particular relies a lot on the loading screen between levels to set up the context for what's about to happen, and if you miss the information presented, either through text or voice overs, the following level won't always make much sense.

It was also interesting for me to replay the game with the intent of giving the other people in the room the best "view" of the action. I was acting as the director in a real sense, so I tried to make sure I was always facing where scripted actions were occurring so they wouldn't miss cool and interesting scenes. Sometimes I was successful, other times I don't think I was.

As I was playing I noticed where the game padded its length to fit more "game" in. I don't mean padded as in it needlessly made its length longer. I mean in the sense that there are sequences where the plot isn't advanced in order for the player to complete certain scenarios that are fun and exciting. Before, when I thought back on the game, I usually remembered the major plot points: the opening assassination, the nuclear blast, the utterly epic slow motion finale. I didn't really think about all the stuff that happened between those moments. COD4 could absolutely be condensed into an awesome action movie, I think. However, sequences like saving the disabled tank, the escape from the farm while calling in air strikes, and possibly the escape and standoff from Chernobyl didn't do much to advance the story. They're exciting to play, but for someone watching me play, it dilutes the main plot of the game and makes it hard to remember what's going on.

We'll be trying The Darkness next. It's got a story with a bit more emotional heft, and tells it a bit more traditionally as far as videogames are concerned. It has five acts, so I'm hoping we can do one act a night until we're finished.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hyrule is Saved! (Again)

Well, I officially beat my first Zelda game tonight. All in all, it was a good time. The things to do were varied and interesting. There were charming characters to interact with and epic bosses to conquer.

Having said that, I do have some complaints. I listed some the other night, but i'll add a few more.

I've heard people say that they really enjoyed the character of Midna. For me, she started out as annoying, then eventually became sympathetic as the story progressed. For me though, the most interesting relationship in the game was between Link and Ilia. Ilia is a teenage girl living in the village with Link. She helps take care of Epona, Link's horse, and seems to be in love with Link. She's eventually kidnapped by monsters, and Link rescues her. However, she's lost her memory. There's not much you can do about it at first, so you continue searching dungeons for various widgets to be used to defeat the evil king from the Twilight Realm.

The nice thing is that Link and Ilia's relationship was fleshed out enough in the beginning of the game that I was genuinely concerned about her when she was kidnapped and subsequently without her memory. Between dungeons and other activities I was constantly checking on her to see if and progress had been made by the local shaman. I was thrilled when I finally was given the set of tasks to restore her memory. While the music left a bit to be desired, the moment when she recognized Link was a memorable one, and made me genuinely happy.

The problem is that after this, she pretty much disappears from the game. You can go see her, sure, but she doesn't have much to say. During the credits, you see her waiting in the village for Link, but you never get to see their reunion. Do they happily wed and pop out a bunch of kids? Are they a cute farming/ranching couple? Does Ilia eventually become tired of hearing of her husband's legendary exploits as the Chosen Hero? Who knows. The game didn't see fit to tell me. After defeating Ganondorf, the game essentially just shows a montage of the characters returning home, but doesn't elaborate on much else. In my mind, I was saving Hyrule so that Ilia would be safe, not because the world itself was in danger. In Wind Waker, your sister is kidnapped in the beginning, which begins your quest. I knew nothing about her though. I felt more connection to my grandmother telling me to rescue her than the sister herself. I really didn't feel much of an impulse to continue Wind Waker once I got stuck, while Ilia in Twilight Princess served as my motivation.

Another part that felt undeveloped were the group of knights or adventurers who appear about halfway through the game. They sort of appear out of nowhere and lead you to the second set of dungeons. They talk about valiantly defending the kingdom and defeating evil, but all they really do is sit around a table in a bar. How are they qualified to help me? In the final dungeon they show up to help in one tiny section, run bravely into the dungeon entrance, and are never seen again. During the fight with Ganondorf, the castle explodes. Does that mean all those adventurers died? I don't recall seeing them in the closing montage, but I may just be forgetting they were there.

Speaking of the exploding castle, it would have been nice if the game had let me return to the world and hear people's reactions. The castle exploded! That's a big event!

Anyway, I DID like the game, I just felt that it didn't live up to all the potential it seemed to have. The idea of a reincarnating hero sent to defeat an undying or reincarnating villain is a cool one. From what I've read on Wikipedia and elsewhere, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are most likely happening in parallel timelines created from the events of Ocarina of Time. I'd love for the next game to somehow bring those timelines together and bring some kind of closure to the seeingly eternal battle between Ganon and Link.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Game Log, and a Multimedia Experiment

Sooo, what've i been playing since last we spoke?

Kameo: Elements of Power
Finally beat this, after buying it with my launch 360 way back in 2005. The graphics are still gorgeous, but the controls and gameplay are just kinda meh all around. Now I know why I gave up on it all those months ago.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Very nearly finished with this. It's been fun, but the dungeons wear me out. Each one can take 3-5 hours to complete, with the climactic boss battle at the end. The battles are epic, but by the time I finally get to the boss, I just want out of the dungeon so I can either save and quite or move the plot along. Also, the contrived nature of the dungeons and how they're designed around the tools you find, along with arbitrary limits on things like the wallet tend to bring me out of the experience and remind me that, yes, I am in fact playing a game. Still, I'm glad to say that I will have finally finished a Zelda game.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Ahh yes, somewhat of an old standby for me. This time I'm playing it on the 360 as opposed to the PC. I miss the mods, especially the interface and texture enhancements, but the underlying game is still as fun and addictive as ever. I did, however, forget how tough the game can be on lower levels. Cyrodil is an enchanting place to spend time in.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Like millions of others, I've been spending lots of time exploring Liberty City and doing my best to disrupt the peace there. Don't have much to add that others haven't said, but the characters are interesting, the story mostly engaging, and the city itself great fun to play in. It can be incredibly frustrating to have to redo a mission for the 4th or 5th time because of shoddy handling of vehicles, but there are so many spontaneous moments that bring a grin to the face. These weren't scripted or programmed events, but just things that randomly occur because of what the designers made available in the world. I always have great stories to exchange with one of my coworkers who's also playing.

I convinced my sister and her husband to let me try a little experiment. There are a few games out there that I think have such good stories and interesting gameplay that I think they would work well as a "movie" or other non-interactive visual entertainment medium. So I thought, why not have someone watch me play the game much like we'd watch a movie or TV show together? A couple of candidates that came to mind were Call of Duty 4, The Darkness, and Shadow of the Colossus. I ended up trying COD4, and the two of them said they enjoyed it. I played on the easiest difficulty to minimize having to replay portions. Unfortunately, there is no invincibility cheat for the game on the 360. This may prove problematic on some of the tougher, later levels. They said they were willing to continue, so hopefully the plot makes up for any rough patches in the game.

That's all for now folks! Next post in... whenever it's posted!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Game Log - 5/1/2008

Sorry I missed a day, but here we go.

*Condemned 2
Finally beat this. Felt like the game just stopped. There was a boss fight, but it was no more interesting than some of the other bosses I had faced. Finished off some easy achievements. The combat really is fun when you get in a groove and start making crazy combos against your opponent and then smash their head into a TV.

*Professor Layton
I've done only a few more puzzles on this. Haven't had too much time at work to whip out the DS. The past few puzzles have been pretty fiendish though.

*Burnout Revenge
This is something I haven't played in months. I burned myself out trying to get achievements, which in this game is very difficult to do. Last night I through it in the drive and actually played for fun, and, well, HAD some. The sense of speed is glorious and the crash intersections are particularly fun. Trying to deliberately cause as much destruction never gets old.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Game Log - 4/28/2008

I did manage to get some gaming after all, though not much.

* Guitar Hero 2
While at my parents I set up my mom's new Xbox and we rocked out for a few minutes. What people say is right: Guitar Hero 2 on Hard difficulty is much harder than Rock Band's Hard difficulty. I need to practice.

*Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Got past the "shooting" stage that I was in. I was in the midst of a shoot out that I kept dying in, where enemies just kept spawning. Then, on yet another reload, I shot a few guys and a scripted event occurred to end the level. I don't really know what was different on that try compared to the others.

The subsequent level is back to quality bum beating form. The game still likes to throw parts at me that are significantly harder than what comes before or after. This causes me to get frustrated and quit, though usually coming back the next day is enough time between sessions to get me through.

That's all for the weekend. I might make an all-nighter of Condemned 2 tonight and try to finish it up. GTA 4 tomorrow!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Game Log - 4/26/2008

In the spirit of Stephen Totilo's Game Diaries on the MTV Multiplayer blog, I'll attempt to list what I played the previous day and give some quick thoughts on it.

* Condemned 2: Bloodshot

I'm about halfway through this now. The first few level I had a hard time with. I wasn't completely clear on the combo system, and like the first game, getting the timing down for blocks and hits can take a while. The most frustrating part is when you're bumrushed (literally) by more than one enemy. The combat system doesn't seem able to handle that situation. The best solution in that case is to simply let one of them attack the other and pick off the survivor.

The level I'm in now is a pure shooting level. I'm not entirely thrilled about it. The draw of the game is first person melee combat. The guns were originally there to offer what I felt to be a breather from the close combat, and almost a reward for progress. Beat your way through that level? Here's a gun and six bullets for some easy long range kills. But when the game becomes exclusively a shooter, the flaws in the mechanics become more apparent. There's no aiming reticle, so you have to aim down the sight to be accurate. Also, you have to find bottles of alcohol around and drink them so your aim is steady. It becomes more of an annoyance than anything else. I've read that most of the end of the game revolves around shooting instead of hand to hand combat, which is disappointing.

*The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

This game is really fun, I must say. Granted, the gameplay is exactly like Wind Waker on the Gamecube, but I'm starting to think that my problem with Wind Waker and Metal Gear Solid may just come down to the fact that the Gamecube controller sucks. It's clunky and the buttons aren't laid out in a way that makes it easy to reach with your fingers. Maybe it's just my hands. The Wii controls in Twilight Princess just feel a lot better to me. I can't really quantify it.

I wasn't sure about the more realistic art style they went with, but it's grown on me now. I can't help but think that Link looks like a young Shigeru Myamoto. With elf ears.

I finished up the second dungeon, couldn't figure out where I'm supposed to go next (north, but WHERE north?), and put it down. It seems easier than Wind Waker as far as combat and puzzles, but I don't mind that.

*Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Played for an hour during lunch at work and unlocked a new section of town to explore. The puzzles are still keeping me entertained, even the frustrating ones. I haven't been this happy about a game purchase since probably The Orange Box last year.


Unfortunately, family obligations mean I probably won't get to play anything until Sunday at the earliest. We'll see though.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Curious Occurrence

I own a sleek Nintendo DS and a half dozen or so games for it. I had a lot of fun with New Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, but it's mostly been collecting dust since then. I bought Final Fantasy III for it but gave up on it after awhile. Recently, I've found reason to dust off the sleek handheld.

I was looking for a game to pass the time at work during lunch, and decided to pick up Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It's a great little puzzle game following the adventures of Professor Layton and his apprentice, Luke, as they try to solve various mysteries in the town of St. Mystere somewhere in Europe. The people of St. Mystere are pathologically obsessed with puzzles and brain teasers of various sorts, and they usually won't help you until you've solved a puzzle for them. They range from relatively straightforward to some that are true mind benders. Other puzzles are hidden around the game world, and there are also puzzles closer to the jigsaw variety, where pieces are scattered around the game and you find them in hidden places or get them for solving puzzles. I'm finding pieces of what appears to be a mechanical dog, and scraps of a painting. Not sure what it's a painting of yet.

The writing is excellent and there's quite a bit of voiceovers, which is rare for a handheld game. The art is a semi-cutesy 2D cartoon style. The town and characters are detailed and memorable, and the mysteries are interesting enough to keep me interested in finding out what happened.

It's great as a mobile game because you can do as many or few puzzles as you have time for (though you'll probably find yourself wanting to do more than you have time for if you're in a hurry). At home I have a 360, Wii, and PS2, so my gaming time is constrained as it is. Playing for an hour at work this past week has been a great way to get back into the DS. I was tempted to sell it, but the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog RPG from BioWare convinced me to hold on to it. I'm glad I did.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Your City Asplode!

Half Life 2 - "Follow Freeman" level

Call of Duty 4 - Charlie Don't Surf level

I don't know about other people, but I find urban combat settings in shooters to be among my favorite. There is something about being in a chaotic warzone, bullets flying, rockets propelling, soldiers yelling in the distance, that gets me much more excited than your standard corridors and rooms in most shooters. Perhaps it's the feeling of being a small part of greater battle that is exciting. The battles also feel much more desperate and frantic. Any moment, you could walk around a corner and see an army of foes approaching you. It's not like a battlefield in the 18th century where everyone rushes at each other across a field.

Some games like CoD 2 don't get that feeling right. Everything feels very self contained in that game. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) and its sequel also didn't quite get the feeling right for me. The levels were too sterile. It was only your squad, occasional support, and Mexican rebels. There were no civilians, animals, or anything to make it feel like a living city. It may come down to something as simple as sound design. If I can hear shouting, gunshots, and other sounds of battle in the distance, like they're just over that wall there, I immediately like a level more than if they weren't.

A good non-game example is the end of the movie Children of Men, when Clive Owen's character runs through a battle in the refugee city looking for the baby. I couldn't find a good clip of it, but if you've seen the movie you know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, that's one way a game developer can make me like their game more.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Final Fantasy X Annoyances

I'm still really enjoying this game for all the reasons I listed previously. I have run into a few aggravating things about it though.

First off, unskippable cutscenes. As I said before, I like the cutscenes in this game, but I've now run into a few boss battles that are preceded by 5 minute long cinematics that I'm forced to rewatch when my party gets killed. Sometimes you can hit a button to cut short some of the dialog, but the animations still play out. I want to get back to the fight, not rewatch the same thing over and over.

Secondly, and I hear this is common to JRPGs, are the boss fights that are far more difficult than anything you've previously faced. At one particular boss fight, I was completely wiped out in one turn. It was so fast and brutal that I thought it was one of those boss fights that you're actually supposed to lose. That hope was dashed when the Game Over screen floated before my eyes. The same thing happened later. That particular boss had three different forms. I powered through the first two forms, but the very first turn of the last form destroyed me. Now I have to play through all three forms again.

Part of the problem I think is that the game is very forgiving during most of the regular exploration/dungeon crawling monster encounters. You don't have to worry too much about what characters to use. Sure, some are better than others in different situations, but for the most part you can brute force your way through the random encounters. The harder bosses, however, require a deeper understanding of the various status effects in the game and the various abilities of your characters. The game doesn't explain what Zombie means. I guess it expects you to either know from the previous games, or look at the manual, which is what I did. It's frustrating to spend 30 minutes on a boss then die because you weren't aware that the Zombie status, which is normally a bad thing, is actually required to survive one particular attack.

So those are my main gripes with the game so far. I've fairly close to the end now, and I'm ready to find out how this quest wraps up.


I bought a Nintendo Wii from a gentleman in New York State. Paid $300 plus $10 shipping. Went out and bought Twilight Princess and component video cables. Hooked it up. Basked in the comforting blue glow of the disc slot. Gloried in my ability to get news and weather from my gaming console. Didn't play any Wii games, but put in my Gamecube games.

Wait, what?

I guess I'm weird, but I was excited to be able to finally see Wind Waker and Metal Gear Solid in widescreen. Wind Waker in particular looked gorgeous. It really makes me want to play it again, which is good since I never finished it in the first place.

The Wii has the original Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, Link to the Past, and Ocarina of Time available for downloading. I'm seriously contemplating downloading them all and starting from the beginning. I think it'd be very interesting to chart the evolution of the series over time. If I did so, I'd have to make sure I didn't get burned out on Zelda. But it could be fun.

My current plan is to finish Final Fantasy X this week and start Condemned 2. Then we'll see where we go from there. I get the feeling that if I don't finish Metal Gear Solid now, I never will. How much does that prospect bother me? Hmm…

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Do I Have Any Idea What I’m Talking About?

In addition to the many I already have, I've recently developed a new insecurity.

You see, my first gaming console was the Sega Genesis. I didn't own another console until the Xbox 360. No Nintendo (of any flavor), no Playstation, no original Xbox. That's a massive gap in my gaming experience.

For a while I played exclusively on the PC. X-Wing, MechWarrior, Jedi Knight, Monkey Island, Half-Life, and Elder Scrolls were my entertainment of choice. At the same time I never played Starcraft. For Half-Life and Elder Scrolls, I didn't play these until the hype for the latest installments in the series was at full blast and I wanted to know what the big deal was.

This is mostly my fault of course. When my family had a Sega Genesis, I mostly played the Sonic the Hedgehog games. My parents didn't have the money or desire to buy me the latest releases, and eventually I grew bored with it. I read lots of books, and moved to computer gaming when we got our first IBM Aptiva desktop with Windows 95. I was still too young to be able to buy my own games, and even when my parents gave me an allowance I had to hoard it for weeks in order to buy something I wanted (which quite often was Star Trek action figures). Since I showed little interest in having another game console, my parents never bought me one.

Lately I've been trying to get caught up on older franchises on the console side of gaming, but it's a nearly impossible task. It's made slightly easier by services like the Wii's Virtual Console, so I don't have to track down and ancient game system and cartridges, but there's still the issue of time. New games are coming out all the time. There are thousands of older games I've missed out on. True, probably only a few dozen are worth playing, but that's still a lot of games.

Here's a handy list of some of the games and game franchises I've never played:

  • The Legend of Zelda (any except Wind Waker and the first hour of Ocarina of Time)
  • Just about every Super Mario game except Super Mario Bros.
  • Most Final Fantasy games
  • Every other famous JRPG out there
  • Most of the famous western RPGs (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, most of Fallout)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Anything from Blizzard except for the beginning of Diablo
  • Deus Ex

And many others I'm sure I'm forgetting.

So, many times I feel unqualified to comment on something game related. I've read a LOT about these games, so I can point to what other people have said. There's a great series of posts at The Brainy Gamer about how Zelda might be improved for the future, and I did leave a comment on one of the posts, but I really couldn't contribute much because I hadn't played most of them. Kind of frustrating.

So to the one person a week who reads this: do I have any hope? Will I ever be able to hold court with the gaming cognoscenti?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy X, and Cutscenes (and Misc. Bits)

I've gotten through the first disc of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, and to be honest, it's been a struggle to get through. The game has no tutorial to speak of and simply throws you into a room with several guards and expects you to figure out how to either evade or incapacitate them. I was stuck in this first room for about an hour before I cried uncle and cracked open the manual. Only then did I learn that you can sneak up behind guards, choke the life out of them, and drag them out of sight. I suppose this is my fault more than the game's but I've grown to expect console games to show me how to play it. Mass Effect had much the same problem.

Once I managed to get out of the first room I was able to get a little more comfortable with the controls. But they strike me as incredibly clunky. You use the analog stick to move, but you either creep or run, and there's no smooth transition between those states. It's hard to know where the threshold between the two is. Many times I've been sneaking up to a guard, only to accidentally lunge forward, alerting him and everyone within a half mile radius to my location. It's frustrating.

The Metal Gear Solid series is known for its convoluted storyline told through extensive cutscenes. I don't mind cutscenes, but the ones in MGS are pervasive to the point of annoyance. When I finish one ten minute cutscene, get two minutes of gameplay, and then have to sit through another ten minute cutscene, I start getting frustrated. I just want to PLAY.

Don't get me wrong. One of my primary motivations for completing a game is to find out what happens in the plot of the game. Unless I'm replaying a portion of a game several times, I don't skip cutscenes. They're rewards for getting through a portion of a game and serve to further motivate me to continue. The problem is when the game forgets that it's a GAME and not a movie. This is Metal Gear Solid's problem. It wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that when I actually get to play, it's an exercise in frustration for me. The irony is that the story is pretty good. Espionage, double-crossings, and sudden twists are the name of the game, and it makes me interested to know what happens next. I'm just losing interest in playing to find out.

The other annoying thing is that there are sequences that require you to backtrack through areas you've already been. I basically had to replay the entire game at that point in order to find a weapon for a boss fight. Later, while looking online, I found that doing so wasn't strictly necessary, but that was what the game told me to do. Backtracking through levels of a game is a sure way to make me not want to continue playing.

On the other side of the coin, Final Fantasy X has been a wonderful experience. I think I'm about ¾ of the way through, and as my first extended experience with a Final Fantasy game, it's been great. The characters are interesting, the story has drawn me in, and the gameplay itself is great fun. My experience with JRPG's is limited, but I find FFX's sphere grid to be more interesting than Enchanted Arms' or Eternal Sonata's boring method of leveling up. You're constantly leveling up as you play, therefore making each play session feel rewarding. The puzzle sections are a nice diversion, though it would have been nice to have them more integrated in the rest of the game rather than keeping them in certain sections only.

Cutscenes in FFX are spread out pretty evenly. They can be long, and they've occasionally devolved into melodrama, but the excellent gameplay between them makes me far more tolerant of them. It uses a mixture of in-game engine and pre-rendered cutscenes. The pre-rendered ones are gorgeous, and are truly a nice reward at the end of an extended series of dungeon crawls. Every time I see one, I want more, but the game wisely keeps them special by not overusing them. I don't know if this applies to every Final Fantasy game, but it's certainly effective in this one.

In other gaming news, I finally finished Gears of War's campaign. I started from the beginning and beat it on Hardcore difficulty with help of a few people online, then played through Insane mode with the help of yet another. The game is much easier, and consequently much more fun, when you have someone playing with you. I even went a few rounds online, but as expected it didn't really suck me in.

I also picked up Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 again. The developers released a new set of co-op missions for download, so decided to try them out. I forgot just how difficult those co-op missions are. Once I found a group of good people to play with, it was a great time. Those missions really require coordinated teamwork. Strategy is essential. The only problem is that strategy can only be formed by playing a mission several times in a trial and error fashion to figure out what needs to be done. It's still immensely satisfying to beat those missions.

Finally, I received Condemned 2: Bloodshot in the mail. The first game was a terrifying experience, and I'm looking forward to the sequel. I'm going to try to hold off on it until I finish FFX though. As for Metal Gear Solid… I want to finish it. I want to know what happens next. But I won't be surprised if it enters my pile of unfinished games. And will I even give Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 a try? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus - Final Thoughts

A month since my last entry! Well, I can assure you that I did finish Shadow and have a few thoughts on it. Some spoilers lie ahead.

The ending was as tragic and bittersweet as I expected, though there was a small glimmer of hope at the end. One interesting thing it did was give me control of the character during moments that most games would leave exclusively to cutscenes. While the outcome is set in stone as far as I know, there's a moment where you're being pulled down into a vortex. The game gives you control, and lets you desperately fight to stay alive as you're inexorably pulled toward your fate. It was a powerful moment, because I thought I could actually win and be reunited with my love. Sadly, this was not the case.

The battle with the final colossus was a truly epic experience. It was far larger than any of the others, and just getting to it was a harrowing, heart-racing experience. It probably took me around two hours to figure out how to beat it. Now that I know how it's done, it probably wouldn't take very long at all, but it required lots of trial and error at multiple steps to figure it out.

I suppose I have to mention Agro, the horse. It had previously been spoiled for me that he died a rather unexpected death, so while I was sad when that moment occurred, it didn't have as much impact as I'm sure it did for many other people. What I didn't know, however, was that he wasn't actually dead! When he limped back into the temple, I was truly elated.

One thing I was a bit disappointed in was that, even though there were a couple moments of interactivity, the ending was told mostly through cutscenes. I think I'm starting to get tired of the traditional cutscene in games, and hopefully I'll put my thoughts down in writing sometime soon.

Next post will be about my experiences with Metal Gear Solid, and that'll tie in with the cutscene thing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus - I feel so sad

I've been thinking about the fact that I feel bad about killing the colossi and how other games haven't really elicited this sort of response from me. When I'm playing I feel pretty gloomy. There are fun moments of course, but in some ways it's like watching a gloomy movie. Movies like A History of Violence are entertaining, but they're not particularly cheery either. You feel kind of sick watching some parts of it. More extreme examples are Requiem for a Dream or Schindler's List. Those are both all around dreary movies. You're more likely to say "It was a good movie" than "I liked it." I mean, who likes Schindler's List? Shadow of the Colossus is the same way. I feel like I'm watching a tragedy unfold before my eyes, but the difference is that I'm causing it to happen. I'm so selfish and grief-stricken at the loss of my love that I'll do anything to bring her back, even at the cost of my soul. I'm not passively watching people spiral into oblivion. I'm sending them there myself. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's as bad as Schindler's List, but I think A History of Violence is a better analogue.

The monsters are getting more and more difficult to take down, and it's truly becoming an exhausting experience. While it took me around 3 hours to beat the first eight, the last two took me nearly two hours to bring down. This contributes to feeling down when I play the game. At the end of the battle there's no elation, just relief that it's over. I noticed in the first eight that the difficulty levels were all over the place. Some went down quickly, while others took longer, so perhaps an upcoming battle will be more straightforward than the last couple. When I turn the game off I long for something sunny and happy to watch or play. I really need to find a Wii so I can play Super Mario Galaxy...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus, Part 2

Well I'm about six monsters into the game now and I think I've got the format of the game down. It's basically a puzzle game. The puzzle is how to get on to the creature in the first place. The first monster was simple: just walk up to it and start climbing. The rest haven't been so simple. It's usually involved getting the creature to lower a limb. Occasionally I've had to bait it to attack me, dodge the attack, then quickly climb up the weapon or limp before it pulls up. A couple of times I've been unable to figure out what to do. When this happens, the game gives hints. So far there's a general hint, then if I'm still running around not getting anywhere, the hint gets more specific. I don't mind this much since I prefer to progress through the game instead of wasting time not getting anywhere. In once instance the hint was something that, to me at least, was not obvious or intuitive at all. In other cases, I'm able to figure it out and feel good about myself.

The fights themselves are still always tense and exciting. However, I still feel somewhat bad once the fight has been one. I have noticed though that the creatures are starting to attack me first more often, and that because of this I don't feel as bad when they finally go down. But then I wonder, has news of my exploits spread to the other creatures? Are they using a good offense as their defense? Then again, the flying creature that I had to kill in mid-air didn't bother me at all until I shot it with a bow and arrow. I imagine that would piss most people off.

I'm mostly okay with the controls at this point. My main source of frustration now is that sometimes when climbing the beast they're unresponsive. Depending on where on the creature's body you are, it will try to shake you off. Depending on how hard it's trying to do this, my character can do nothing but cling valiantly for his life. Since there is a limited time in which I can hold on, I've run into situations where once I grab on to the beast I can't go anywhere because it's shaking too hard. So then I plummet to the ground, usually surviving the fall, and have to start from the bottom all over again. I guess this is a realistic game mechanic, but when I have one blow left to kill it and then get shaken off, I get frustrated.

All in all though, I'm enjoying the game. I've been playing it one or two monsters at a time, since the fights tend to be kind of exhausting. There are sixteen monsters in all, so I still have some ways to go. There are no hints yet as to the motives of the disembodied voice that's tasked me with killing these beasts. I'm looking forward to finding out what's going on there.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus, Part 1

After a lot of creative rearranging, replugging, and tidying up, I got my entertainment setup all arranged with the shiny new PS2 and the Gamecube I got for free a while back. Everything seems to be mostly working, but my TV is out of inputs, so I can only have the Gamecube or PS2 plugged in at a time, not both. I definitely want a new TV.

I was housesitting my parents' house this past weekend, so when I bought the PS2 I was down in St. Mary's County. I hooked it up to their TV to make sure it worked. I also tried playing Shadow of the Colossus for a few minutes. It actually didn't work at first. Insanely long load times, graphical glitches, and lock ups greeted me when I tried to play. But after looking at the disc and wiping off the strange goop I found, it seems to be working perfectly so far. Serves me right for buying the game use.

I've heard a lot about this game, almost all of it good, so I was anxious to see how it goes. When the game loads a cutscene plays showing the main character riding his horse through a treacherous cliffside path and approaching an incredibly long bridge while a rather haunting but beautiful musical score accompanies it. After loading a new game, the cutscene continued and my character wound his way into a sort of temple. He got off his horse, and then picked up something from it that I hadn't noticed at first. I realized it was the body of a woman. He carried her to what looked like an altar then cried out for the attention of some god or mythical being. The god, whose name I can't remember, answered and basically asked what this guy wanted. The hero answered that he wants the woman's soul returned to her. I guessed that meant she was dead, and that this hero was in love with her. The god said that it was impossible for mortals, but since the hero happens to be carrying a special sword, it might be possible for him. All he has to do is destroy the colossi roaming the land. There is a statue in the temple for each one. The hero agrees to do so, but the deity warns that there will be a price to pay. The hero says it doesn't matter and goes on his way.

At this point I'm guessing that this quest isn't going to end well. The god speaking to the hero has a rather creepy sounding voice. The way he spoke about the colossi seemed vaguely sinister and he seemed to be using the hero to serve his own ends. It's just a feeling I have, and we'll see how it turns out. Perhaps the deity is one of the colossi, and is seeking to destroy the others for his own ends? We'll find out, I guess.

After the cutscene ended, I was given control of the main character. Right away, I hit a snag. The direction the camera moves is, by default, inverted from the direction it moves by default on the 360. Pushing up on the analog stick made the camera go down, instead of up like I'm used to. I was able to change this in the options, however. The controller itself took a bit to get used to. It's significantly smaller than the 360's controller, and I felt like my hands were too close together. By the end of my time, however, I was more accustomed to it.

After a tutorial that felt rushed, I found myself facing my first colossus. It was a hulking beast with hooves almost twice my height and it wielded a massive club. It was pretty magnificent to behold from a distance. It shook the ground as it walked and created gigantic cracked footprints int he earth. As I ran towards it I realized just how huge this thing was. Unfortunately, I found myself starting to wrestle with the controls. The control scheme is different from any other game I've played before, so I had a hard time remembering how to jump, climb, and grab on to things. The main portion of the game seems to be climbing these giants and attacking their weak spots until their dead. I basically got trampled to death a few times because I couldn't figure out how to climb up the beast's body. After several tries I started to get the hang of it. There's a meter that shows how strong my grip on the beast is, which helped my realize when I was about to get shaken off. I also found a few platforms on the beasts back which I was able to climb onto to get my bearings.

Climbing this thing was pretty exhilarating once I figured out the controls. I found its first weak spot on its leg and slashed away at it with my sword, and after that was able to climb higher. In some ways it seemed like a giant, furry, walking building. It had hair that I could use to climb, but it also had the aforementioned platforms to use, along with what almost looked like carved stone. It's final weak spot was directly on top of its head. I climbed its fur all the way up and started attacking it. It actually managed to shake me loose and I fell all the way to the ground again. I thought I was dead but I somehow survived. I climbed back up and dealt the final few blows, bringing it crashing to the ground. A mournful piece of music began playing, and I actually felt a little bad about killing this thing. It hadn't done anything to me, I just ran up to it and started slashing away at it. I've heard of people saying they didn't finish this game because they couldn't bring themselves to kill the remaining colossi. I can already understand why.

The whole tone of the game so far is mournful and subdued. The hero is obviously grief stricken from this gir's death, and he's traveled far to get to the temple. The music is sad and mournful. The color scheme so far is washed out browns, yellows, and some greens. It's not a cheery landscape to ride across.

So that was my first hour or so with Shadow of the Colossus. Hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to play more. I'm not sure how many colossi I have to kill. Maybe eight to ten in all. I know I've read the number somewhere, but the exact number escapes me at the moment. Here's hoping it's a fun quest.
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