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    Games I Like: No Man’s Sky


    2016 - 09.20

    My third ship in No Man's Sky, the Green Meanie

    I like No Man’s Sky. That’s right, I said it. I’ll go a step further too: I like No Man’s Sky right now, one month after the PC release. This is not a popular viewpoint so let’s unpack it.

    Expectations can make or break the perception of music, movies, or videogames. From the very start this game had colossal expectations placed upon it, and I think that’s reason #1 behind the largely negative perception of the game right now. As documented previously I definitely rode the hype train hard on this title, but having put in well above 70 hours over the last month, right now I’m feeling like I actually got what I came for.  (Note that all screenshots in this post are captures that I took during my playthrough.  All were taken in 4k resolution although some are cropped; click to view them full size)

    red mountains and blue seas in No Man's Sky

    Solar eclipse (and moon!) over distant mountains in No Man's SkyReason #2 behind the negative perception of the game is that there’s a lot of things which were shown in trailers and talked about by the developers that were simply not in the game at all. You could call that a lot of different words. Mine would be strange and disappointing. Disingenuous might be another. But before we get too bogged down in the name-calling which inevitably results from dwelling on this for long, let me just back way, way up, and look at this whole thing from a top-level, macro perspective:

    No Man’s Sky has delivered a universe-sized universe and it’s magnificent. The thing I want to focus on more than anything else is the aesthetic, because that’s what drew me in long ago when I first heard about the game, and that’s what held my interest when lots of other space games started coming out but I refused to play them, intentionally waiting and keeping my outlook fresh. The look and the feel of No Man’s Sky is what keeps me playing now and it’s what blew me away when I picked up the mouse and keyboard for the first time. None of the other space games that compete in this same genre have this stunning artistic style to them. Right off the bat when you start playing the game it’s magical. Most players agree with that. And importantly, in regard to the overall aesthetic, the final game we have now is exactly what was shown in the trailers.

    Sunset on some ruins in a lush jungle world in No Man's Sky

    One of my favorite friendly dinosaurs I've encountered in No Man's SkySo my individual perception is admittedly slanted. One, it was mainly the look, the feel, the style I saw in the trailers that I wanted to get, and I got that. And two, I haven’t been playing other space games or really that many games in general. Witcher 3 was the only other game I’ve been putting serious time into during 2016. Ironically the contrast could hardly be stronger between these two games. Witcher is story-driven with huge set-pieces, has a lengthy list of characters, and is hand-crafted in practically all aspects. On the other end of the spectrum No Man’s Sky has only two reoccurring characters and turns you loose in a randomly generated universe that essentially has no objective at all! Sure, there are things you can do, but really when you boil it down, those objectives are not what you’re playing this game for. (“Wait a minute… we’re not playing the game to try to beat the objectives…???”) And that right there is what I think totally throws 95% of people off about this game!!

    I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute but first let me say this: I do think the main criticism being leveled at the game (boredom) would be there no matter what. If they added randomly generated fetch quests for NPCs, if they made the overall upgrade grind thirty times longer and more complex than it is now, if they made the periodic table eight times bigger, if they populated space with twenty times more bounties/battles/traders/cruisers—if they did all that and more, people will always get bored at some point.

    The "Wild Spineyback" forages in the dense tall forests of Big Things 50% modded No Man's Sky

    Just another amazing vista in No Man's SkyLook at a game like Skyrim. It’s packed to the gills with scripted quests, books to read, skill trees to expand, or just broadly speaking, stuff to do that some other human being took hours and hours to create for you. And still people say they’re bored with Skyrim because they exhausted all that or did enough of it that they felt the underlying repetition even though new tasks remained. So people start a new character and “roleplay” within the world of Skyrim, imagining boundaries of what their character will or won’t do, what their personal goals might be, and charting their own specific path through the world. In my own playing, this mentality is how I’ve had the most fun in No Man’s Sky.

    I would say this Skyrim roleplaying behavior, especially when taken to the extreme, is somewhat of an anomaly in the entertainment medium of videogames. Almost always, a game is telling you where to go and what to do. Sure you have choices and probably many other diversions but these ten quests and these five ways to build your character, these are what you’re supposed to be doing. Games constantly remind us, condition us to expect this framework. Broadly speaking, “task-completion” and “character-building” are the very foundation of practically all video games. And we expect that games will acknowledge this progression with a constant stream of trophies and points and pats on the back. This is the nearly universal “gaming mindset”. I do activities x, y, or z and the game tells me good job. Sitting on the couch and inventing some other activity for yourself that’s not an actual part of the game’s checklist—that’s not a normal game-playing behavior.

    For instance, visiting the inn and staying five nights there, talking to every NPC and inventing lines of dialogue or jokes that your own character may have said to each of them, that’s not something Skyrim tells you to do. Sure, you can do it, but the game doesn’t interact back with you when you do that. It doesn’t give you an achievement, it doesn’t unlock any new items, and moreover the game isn’t even aware that’s what you were doing. But those kinds of behaviors are what keep Skyrim fresh to many players out there, the kinds of activities that demand input from the players own imagination and a willingness to accept there will be no positive reinforcement for playing that way.

    Nothing like the feeling of blasting through space and landing on an unknown planet in No Man's Sky

    No Man’s Sky is a roleplayers game straight out of the gate. In this game it’s the opposite of what we normally expect. All main quests are all optional. Developing your character is optional. Both of these things, things which are usually the pillars on which nearly every game stands, are only excuses to drive the true “goal” in No Man’s Sky, which is simply wandering and finding something you personally think is weird, cool, or beautiful.

    The game doesn’t acknowledge when you succeed at that. There’s no points rewarded for seeing something cool. And I kind of love that. It’s true to life and it’s true to great art as well. When Wee Bay throws the soda can in The Wire, there’s no musical cue or camera zoom to blatantly telegraph “hey pay attention to this, this was the special moment that’s more important than all those other inconsequential moments! We’re going to bludgeon you in the face with obviousness right here because otherwise we’re afraid you might be too dumb to follow along!” When you succeed in real life it’s often just quiet moments in solitude where you did something right, possibly not realizing how important it was until later. And when you succeed at finding something really neat in NMS, there’s not much, if any, reward built into that from a game mechanics or player feedback standpoint. Seeing something cool IS the reward.

    The Majestic "Struttin Werewulf" in his natural habitat in No Man's Sky

    Chock full of life and giant green sunflowers on this arid planet in No Man's SkyAnd the universe is huge. So huge. It’s so indescribably huge. And you’re so tiny and mostly alone. The universe does not care at all about what insignificant resources you’re trying to scrap together to fix some broken thing you’re stuck on today. To the universe it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail in your small little goals, and when you succeed and raise your hands to the sky in triumph there’s just silence. You have to find your own meaning in things. You have to decide what matters to you personally and set your own goals. Then find your own motivation for completing them, and develop the ability to enjoy the good moments when they happen. The cosmos simply will not spell everything out for you. All that’s true to life.

    To me, the point of No Man’s Sky is to find beauty or majesty and capture that. With a screenshot or with your eye or with your sense of wonder. That’s my goal when I play. It’s an exquisite universe full of things worth seeing, no other game looks quite like it, and whatever you see is uniquely yours. Sure lots of other people will see very similar things but never ever will someone see precisely what you saw, in the context you saw it. It’s impossible! And that, like life, is what makes it special and worth experiencing.

    The No Man's Sky spaceship design aesthetic is just off the charts

    MASSIVE dogfights in modded No Man's Sky! 171 fighters in this battle!

    Would it be a better game if it had rogue planets in deep space, working portals, orbital mechanics, desert planets, binary stars, and all that other stuff people are clamoring for? Hell yeah it would be! But would those things change the overall feeling I get while playing, or drastically alter the moment-to-moment of what I’m doing in the game? Well, no, probably not. They’d expand the replay and immersion yes, but their absence doesn’t kill the feeling I have when I crest a ridge and see a forest of blue trees with dragon-like creatures flying above the canopy. Whoa. It’s that feeling that we’re here for to begin with. And I think it’s amazing how many people have glossed over this. We all want more replay, yes, but stop and appreciate this feeling that’s being created right now, as-is. It’s fantastic.

    At this moment in time the fan community is enraged, fixated on what’s absent rather than what exists. I understand the reasons why and I even agree with those reasons but obsessing over a hypothetical future and ignoring the present moment is the life-trap that Buddhists struggle to overcome. The present moment is sublime, if you can pause and truly see it. It’s like what astronaut Edgar Mitchell said about how our political squabbles seem so trite when you view the universe from a bigger lens, and how he wanted to take the political squabblers, “by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’” Look at it! The grandeur of the cosmos. Every time I hear some infant crying about lies or refunds or after 60 hours why they’ve given up on the game and it was only worth $20 I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck, show them the incredible screenshots and the wonder I have felt on my journey and tell them Look At That You Son Of A Bitch! They built a whole universe for you–a good one–and all you do is complain. It’s possibly the coolest-looking Sci-Fi random world generator ever made. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction, “What we saw was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge that!!”

    Spaceship #2, my favorite so far, "The Creamsicle" in No Man's Sky

    Starry skies on a "dark-space" system in No Man's SkyIt’s human nature to want more and to constantly be thinking of ways to make things better. It’s a strength that drives improvement but also need to be balanced against the knowledge that these tendencies are also handicaps that prevent us from enjoying what IS. By this point I’ve easily read 20 peoples different lists of what they wish MNS had in it or ways it could be better or features that they are hoping for. And I could make my own but I’m resisting that urge because let’s face it, Hello Games is 15 people, this is an indie game, and there will always be another list of “ten great features that could save No Man’s Sky”. Forget all that.

    So back to what I was talking about with expectations and the “gaming mindset”. People expect a firm list of goals, a questline, and a character expansion tree all of which will score points which are the end-all-be-all of playing every game ever. Before the game came out everyone kept asking the question “but what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” Many times the creators answered that question it was followed with the statement “Or you could NOT do that”, the subtext of which was that those proposed activities were not the real point of the game. Which turned out to be the underlying truth I think. The point is to be in the universe and to see it. To enjoy that.

    No Man’s Sky is sort of like the videogame equivalent of the movie Koyaanisqatsi; an ambitious, beautiful art piece that ditches all the usual tropes that bring people in.  No real dialogue, no real plot, no characters, none of that stuff.  It’s all up to you to find something for yourself within it.  Can a film be considered a great film if it’s purely incredible photography and practically nothing else?  Absolutely it can.  But if you walked into the theater to see Koyaanisqatsi and you were expecting a rom com instead, you’d almost surely hate it.  One it’s expectations and two, I think to even appreciate a film like Koyaanisqatsi you sort of have to know a little bit about what it’s trying to do and maybe even have someone else explain what you’re supposed to be getting out of it first.

    Dinosaurs surround my ship on a toxic mushroom world in No Man's Sky

    The underwater scenes in No Man's Sky can be quite striking tooPersonally, I predict that this game will be seen as a landmark title once the dust has settled and the years have passed. Right now there’s a ton of confusion over what it actually is, and that’s muddying the water. I think it’s going to be a lot like Mirror’s Edge. When that game came out it got lots of bad reviews in the game journalism world and negative attention in general, centered around how the combat was awful. But this was an intentional choice by the designers! In most games containing combat you’re supposed to do that, but in Mirror’s Edge combat is the quicksand that drags you down, something to be avoided unless it’s a last resort. So people took a long time to wrap their heads around that! People hated on it and hated on it until enough time went by that the haters just moved on to something else and the voices singing its praise won out. Maybe it’s a niche audience, maybe it was never meant to be grouped in with so many other AAA titles out there, maybe it’s just a little different and you need to go in expecting that to properly enjoy it… Sound familiar?

    Me, I’ve been loving my time in the Euclid Galaxy. I’ve seen more badass, sleek looking spaceships than I can remember, more strange dinosaurs, creepy insects, and peaceful forest animals than I can think of names for. The plant life is often times cooler than the animal life: vast meadows that flow in the breeze, space cacti, weird neon things that grow on toxic planets, giant 200 foot tall mushrooms, and all manner of trees from familiar to exotic. Then there’s the stuff that strikes you as you look around: the huge planet that hangs in the sky when you’ve landed on a moon, the sunset over a sea filled with schools of what look like banana-peels, the two spaceships which sail overhead as you walk out of a bioluminescence-filled cave, the feeling of sudden alarm as you jetpack over a deep ravine you didn’t realize was there. The visuals of No Man’s Sky are spectacular, end of story, full-stop.

    That feeling of safety inside a cave, and the cool view when you step outside it in No Man's Sky

    The wonder is real, and the Red-Dead-esque moments of captivation at the vistas are there. But if you’re pillaging through without slowing down to look around and smile at these little bits as you go along, too obsessed with 48 slots, too possessed by the grind, too hung up on all those video-gamey mechanics that prevent you from actually seeing what’s right in front of your face–you’re gonna miss the magic. That’s a fact, jack. First and foremost No Man’s Sky is a world generator, second an arcade-style space shooter, third a survival game, and lastly a resource-management trader/crafter/upgrader game. Sure, each of those categories could be more fleshed-out with deeper choices and consequences, but as it is today, it hasn’t stopped me from having fun.

    I just might be part of some specially-geared sub-set of players who always relished the exploration more than the explosions in GTA, or in the minority who felt “the map” was the true main character in so many plot-driven open-world adventures (yes, even Red Dead), but c’mon, the firehose of gorgeous scenery this game engine is delivering cannot be denied and that’s not nothing. If Hello Games can put their resources into polishing what’s here and expanding the busywork for players in this universe over the next year, I think history will still be kind to this intergalactic trip through endless book-cover scenes.

    On a verdant planet, goodbye from No Man's Sky

    Games I Like: Mirror’s Edge


    2013 - 07.10

    I’d like to step back in time a few years to highlight a game that got overlooked at the time but is still as hip and worth-playing today as it ever was: Mirror’s Edge. This review is also prompted partially by the news that–who would’ve ever guessed it–this game will be getting a sequel! So let’s talk about Mirror’s Edge, an off-the-wall concept fit to run against the big dogs of the gaming world…

    You play this scrawny girl who lives in a not-too distant future police-state dystopia somewhere in Asia. Your job is to deliever sensitive information between subversive elements of society that are too risky for plain old electronic transmission. You can shoot a gun in this game, but you cannot reload it. That should tell you something already… When you see enemies you can punch them, but you’d be better off to just RUN. Yeah. In this game you can run in ways unlike any other game you’ve ever played.

    “Parkour” is the fancy word used to describe the art running ON walls, jumping off walls with special shoes to reach higher ledges; moves which generally seem to defy gravity but are possible if you’re a fearless (!) and lightweight badass. The game will teach you a series of moves at the beginning, then set you loose along sun-saturated rooftops with an aesthetic palette of mainly white, punctuated by bold neon colors.  I include the below video just to show that parkour is actually a real thing that people do, in actual real life:

    At the time it came out, this game got a lot of bad reviews. I think the reason for this is because those reviewers were trying to classify this game into the same categories that 90% of new releases will fall into. This game does not have a pre-existing category. It’s 1st person parkour with transitive flashes of shooting or punching. People complained about the combat being hard. Yep. That’s the idea. You want to dodge combat wherever possible, and when you have to do it, you’re a scrawny Asian chick with no body armor… so yeah, you can’t absorb bullets like most games allow. This does lead to some tough sequences near the end of the game when combat is unavoidable, but if you’ve been taking the game’s cues along the way, you should have a refined ability to find a pathway where you can take on your foes 1 or 2 at a time, dispatching them as fluidly and rapidly as possible.

    Another polarizing thing about the game is that the storyline is largely told through “anime-style” animated cutscenes between missions. I thought this was effective and enjoyable–this coming from a self-proclaimed anime-hater. The dialogue is heavy with hip-slang and in large part the voice acting is top shelf. The lead actress is particularly spot-on. Ambient/IDM artist Solar Fields polishes things off with a pitch perfect soundtrack for rooftop chases.

    I totally adored this game and found it to be a startlingly crisp breath of fresh air amongst a sea of sequels and recycled ideas. This is the antithesis to your “Call of Duty 72: Yet Again” type release. Shame on the gaming press for squashing such originality, even if they disagreed with some artistic or gameplay choices. This thing doesn’t fit the mold, and that’s what so great about it. You’ll never play another game quite like Mirror’s Edge.

    If I had one criticism, it would be simply “I want more”. The game is short. And with the page-turner of a storyline, you are going to literally fly right through it. The highlights here are very memorable though: sliding down the sloped roof of a skyscraper while a helicopter shoots at you, and running along the outstretched beam of a construction crane and leaping from one rooftop to another across a chasm of city street hundreds of feet below. It’s actually hard not to wince when you fall off the 82nd story of a building, even knowing that you’ll soon respawn. That’s awesome. The action in here is undeniably unique and genuinely tense in its best moments. Even a seasoned gamer will have instants where you look at what just happened and say, “Wow. I really just did that?!” This is at the root of what still makes it worth playing today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go start up a new game right now….

    Games I Like: Sleeping Dogs


    2013 - 07.07

    I’ve written plenty of times on here about my love for Grand Theft Auto. GTAIII is the progenitor that spawned generations of spin-offs; just about any open world game that incorporates driving, social satire, and a nice violent plot owes something to this series. I’ve played each one religiously and thoroughly, mining for the hidden secrets, striving to reach that one obscure area of the map just to say I’ve been there, and replaying them all to hear the dialog and watch the story unfold again. GTA IV was the entire reason I bought both a Playstation 3 and a projector.

    So it’s with all that taken into consideration that I say this: the king has got a serious challenger here.

    Sleeping Dogs was made by Square Enix, a well-renown Asian studio if you’re unfamiliar. The game is set in Hong Kong, which adds the quirky twist that all cars drive on the left side of the road there. What’s incredible about this game is that it seems like the people who made it have been playing all the other great games recently and taking notes on what makes them fun: Sleeping Dogs convolves the fluid hand-to-hand combat of the recent Batman series, the tense footchases from L.A. Noire, the upgrade system to learn new combat moves from Assassin’s Creed, and even a little bit of being able to choose between being good/evil (aka cop/triad) from games like Mass Effect. It’s a little bit of everything–and some well-chosen bits at that.

    Since it’s impossible not to compare to this game to GTA, I’ll go on to point out that some of the major annoyances of that series are absent here: you never seem to find yourself stranded on an empty street with no cars in sight. There are rarely unreasonable obstacles that will maddeningly stop you dead in your tracks if you drive into them–like a 3 foot fencepost that can suddenly halt a garbage truck traveling at 50mph. Or a row of shrubs seemingly made of concrete. And–and!–best of all: the driving mechanics are such that you can actually… Drive! Tapping the e-brake will send you skidding around a corner from which you can deftly recover and thread through traffic like a stuntman. This is Driving, with a capital D, that will make you feel like a badass again. GTA IV, for all it’s amazing successes, had one abysmal, unforgivable failure at it’s core: every car you drove felt like it was driving through mud. I don’t know what in the holy hell they were thinking with those driving mechanics but seriously, I hope someone at Rockstar is playing this game and taking notes. It’s a testament to how amazing the GTA games are–that a shortcoming so central to the gameplay could be overlooked in light of all the other ways it shines… but man you guys… Driving has been going downhill in every entry since Vice City.

    Sleeping Dogs only goes further and gets better from there: you can wash your hands in the sink. People standing outside your apartment have conversations that tell a continuing storyline about their lives. When you set a destination on your map, little arrows appear on the street where you’re supposed to turn, so you can concentrate on driving instead of the minimap. You actually get lucrative rewards for obtaining the myriad of “collectibles”. Like health upgrades or more special moves. You can do badass tricks like jump from one car to another to perform an “action hijack” on the freeway. You can shoot in slow motion when you jump over obstacles. And you can kill your opponents in hand to hand combat with a slew of entertaining and/or gruesome “environmental attacks”. My personal favorite was slamming a dude through the glass of a wall-sized fishtank in a nightclub, in a huge explosion of broken glass, fish, and lots of water. Now that was a gratifying finishing move!

    The voice acting is top notch. The music is awesome. The plot draws you in but doesn’t glue you to the story so much that you’ll forget there’s tons of cars to try, clothes to wear, types of food to eat, favors to do, girlfriends to call, hidden little spots to discover, security cameras to hack, health shrines to visit, street races to win, lockboxes to fight for–the list goes on! It’s worth re-mentioning that the left-hand-drive in Hong Kong is a novelty that doesn’t wear off from start to finish. And the Asian ‘vibe’ is really recreated with panache. From the banter of pedestrians on the street, to the dingy high-rise apartment complexes on the horizon, water-stained by the Pacific rains, to the colorful advertisements everywhere, and to the lively feel of the night market where you find yourself early on in the game–if you’ve been to Asia, this will all ring familiar.

    Sleeping Dogs deserves some real recognition. Going forward, this will be a touchstone for me in open-world crime/driving games. The bar has been raised. You can’t realistically say it’s “better” than GTA IV, in the same way that you can’t really say that a top-notch steak is better or worse than a top-notch lobster. It depends on what you’re hungry for. But I can say this for sure: In some ways it feels like GTA is made in a bubble–oblivious to all the new gameplay mechanics and tricks that everyone else is inventing, Rockstar seems content to simply iterate and make the same game over again. Yeah it’s a winning formula, but the locations are the same, the combat has really not evolved, and the same tired complaints never seem to get addressed. Sleeping Dogs is like a mash-up that folds in the best parts of many superb titles into one colossal experience. It’s got polish. It’s got style. You gots to play this. This is the real deal people. The Dai Lo.

    When GTA V drops this fall I know I’ll be playing it upside down and sideways for as many hours straight as I can before passing out in exhaustion. And I also know that, without question, there’s going to be moments where I say to myself “maaaaan, Sleeping Dogs did this so much cooler.”


    Games I Like: FEZ


    2013 - 05.20

    Over the last week I’ve been playing and greatly enjoying the retro-gasmic puzzle platformer named FEZ. Anyone with a nostalgia for 8-bit art really needs to check this one out. Until recently it was an xbox exclusive, but last week it came out on PC, so it’s acceessible to just about everyone now.

    What’s great about this game? Visuals and sound. Atmosphere. The music–enchanting. At times it really took me back to a place from my childhood when videogames, despite the simplistic graphics, were straight-up magical portals into mystic lands. There’s been many points at which I had to stop and just take in the music. From a production standpoint it’s interesting too. Sometimes it’s clean synths; sines and square waves. Then they apply some bitrate reduction to that and it sounds like an Atari glitching up, in a good way. (The artist who produced it, Disasterpeace, is a well known chiptunes artist.) Sound effects are spot-on too. When you open a locked door there’s this noise that’s like holy crap, we are unlocking some real serious stuff here.

    And dat art design! Wonderful, colorful pixelated graphics. The effect when you warp: super rad. Levels change between day and night. Little birds fly around. 8-bit inchworms. Waterfalls. Then the elephant in the room: you’re in a 3D world which can be viewed from 4 different 2D perspectives. You keep rotating until you can get where you want to go, a concept which is much easier seen than explained. This simple mechanic is the foundation of a fantastic platformer. At it’s root, this is a good GAME.

    If I had one criticism, it’s that there isn’t enough dialog, aka there’s not much of a story. The worlds are mostly devoid of others to talk to, and your helpful hypercube companion only chimes in very occasionally. Some strangers telling tales or runes with ancient lore written on them would deepen this universe considerably. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP had that in spades, but with much more “casual” gameplay mechanics. As a friend of mine who loathed “Diablo” once said, “all you do is click on shit!”. FEZ has some challenging jumps–and thankfully if you die it just takes you back about 2 seconds. NICE. Somewhat reminiscent of the ‘rewind’ from Braid.

    Level design is also pretty unique. There’s a 3D map which helps you keep track of where you’ve gone and how to get back to previous levels. So far I’ve been breezing through and collecting all the cubes has been a cinch. But I get the creeping sense that if you wanted to complete this game 100% it would be dastardly hard… indeed reviewers have confirmed as much. For every cube, there is also an “anti-cube” (colored blue instead of gold). So far I’ve found 18 cubes and 2 anti-cubes, which begs the question, where the heck are all the anti-cubes? Then another question, do I even want to know? There is a complex-looking system of hieroglyphs in the game which presumably must be decrypted to find out. We’ll see about that. There’s some kind of funky secret thing going on with the owls too.

    One little detail I love is that the loading screen for this game is that of a rotating tesseract. Like the characters inside the game, who can only see in 2D, we are restricted to seeing in 3D. A tesseract is a 3-dimensional shadow of a 4-dimensional object, just as a square is a shadow of a cube. THAT gets your mind thinking.

    Anyway, if you dig retro platformers, this thing is a slam dunk. On fire. Stop reading this and go buy it now, it’s like $9 on steam. You can thank me later. Enjoy!

    Games I Like: 3D Dot Game Heroes


    2012 - 08.29

    For whatever reason, it seems like 2012 has been a drought when it comes to awesome new videogames. There just really hasn’t been much that’s caught my eye. Maybe there are newer titles coming out that I’d be into but I’m simply unaware of them. In any event, I’m using this stretch to go backwards in time and play some of the sweet titles that got glossed over. One of these gems worth experiencing is 3D Dot Game Heroes.

    Basically it’s Zelda in 3D, built using very retro 8-bit looking blocks called voxels. This blatent homage is a continual theme throughout the game and all the classic tropes are here; boomerang, bombs, bows & arrows, empty bottles & potions, temples with small keys & boss keys, maddening puzzles, harsh punishments for mid-dungeon screw-ups, and yes, chickens……  when my buddy Vincent saw the game he quipped “man, these guys don’t mess around when they rip off Zelda, do they?”  No they do not.

    This game came out in 2010 and despite the fact that I bought it immediately upon release, I never completed it, thanks to a series of other awesome games which came out right around the same time. That, and this game is, in every single sense, unabashedly old-school; like those retro Nintendo games, when you hit a wall, the game’s not going to hold your hand until you figure it out. You’re on your own to solve the puzzle, or retrace your steps through a massive dungeon in order to find that one key you just didn’t notice.  I originally got stuck somewhere in the aqua temple and as there were no walkthroughs at the time, I hit the wall, got frustrated, and said screw this, I’ve got twenty other awesome games to play right now. As much as I am harping on this thing for its occasional opacity, there is a lot to love here. Especially now that you can just look up the answer online if you get really stuck.

    Most obvious, the art style is super duper hip. There is a super cool effect anytime you defeat an enemy where they disintegrate into a bunch of little 3D pixels; that never gets old.  The game also uses simulated depth of field extensively and shamelessly, to great effect I think.  I would love to see more titles that used this same retro/8-bit graphical approach.  3D Dot Game Heroes is a fascinating manifestation of that style. It’s fun to simply traverse the map, fighting minor baddies and scooping up coins from the bushes.  Just like the Zeldas of yore, there’s a whole huge inventory to fill and many dungeons to conquer.  Some of them are no joke.  If you want to dig even deeper into it, there’s a fair amount of collectibles and side quests too. The game has a grueling 24 different swords in it. I think I might make an effort to gather up some of the oddities although going for 100% completion here is out of the question for me.

    One immediately noticeable thing about 3DDGH is that it features comically oversize swords, parodied to hilarious extent in their pre-release trailer for the game called natural sword enhancement.  Pfffff.  A unique game mechanic that goes along with this, is the fact that your sword is only huge (and only has it’s unique abilities) when you have 100% health.  That strongly encourages the player to aggressively seek health (apples) and try to use the shield a lot, even when fighting minor enemies.

    In brief, it’s like a trip down memory lane, only with some 3-dimensional twist to it that breathes in a new life to the retro mileu. It’s also sprinkled liberally with old school gaming references and intentional bad translations which add to the quirky humor of it all. Definitely an experience worth the investment of several evenings’ worth of free time, and one that probably got glossed over in a sea of AAA releases. If you’ve got fond memories of Zelda, pick this one up, you will not be disappointed!

    Games I Like: Mass Effect


    2012 - 07.05

    So a non-insignificant contributor to the lack of posting on here recently has been the fact that I got my hands on a copy of Mass Effect 3. This superbly made space opera, spanning the Milky Way galaxy, has eaten up a 30-some hour chunk of free time. Since this is a major release title, I’m not going to do an in-depth breakdown of what makes the game cool. Instead I’m just going to lay out a few observations and thoughts upon my playthrough.

    #1: Our Galaxy is Awesome.

    As I was chatting with my ladyfriend in the kitchen and the map of the galaxy was up on the screen she commented, “it’d be really cool if someone made a game where the objective was simply to explore the galaxy.” She was implying the *actual* Milky Way, based upon what we factually know about it. And yes, I would play the shiz out of that game, if someone made it. I said to her, well, out of the games I’ve played, this is probably the closest to that.

    There’s many star systems you can travel to in Mass Effect and each one of them has at least a few planets to check out, all with individual descriptions of the histories, inhabitants, and resources that make them noteworthy. Although fictional, it’s still very cool to browse through an imaginary atlas of the galaxy and search for random points of interest. And when you travel between the stars, you fly across 3D depictions of badass nebulae, like the horsehead. I really dig the music they play as you cruise among the stars; they used it in ME2 as well, and it sets the tone quite nicely.

    But yeah, it’s just rad seeing a slew of odd terrestrial planets with cratered surfaces, ringed gas giants being mined for their helium-3, random space stations, asteroid belts, and the occasional red giant with only shards of rocky debris in orbit. Indeed, the final showdown begins in such a system, where a small space station is easily concealed among the massive firery outbursts of a giant red star. These places are all imaginary, but it’s sweet to play a game that throws you into them. Of course our real galaxy is littered with fascinating star systems of all exotic types. Humankind won’t get to truly explore them for many epochs… but it is fascinating to submerge yourself in a fiction that conjures up all this imagery of what it must be like.

    #2: This Gun is Awesome.


    It’s called the M-13 Raptor and it’s described in the game as “a turian weapon developed for conflict on the low-gravity world Amar. Fighting at longer ranges than expected, the turians optimized a low-recoil, semi-automatic rifle with a scope, and issued it to their infantry, creating a hybrid weapon that was half assault-rifle and half sniper weapon.” Effectively, it’s a medium range weapon. I found it early in the game and combined it with a modification that slows down time by 15% when you look through the scope, which happens to be only 2 or 3x. I’ve played a whole lot of first person shooters in my time, and this gun fills a niche that is almost always left unoccupied: the medium range weapon, where a sniper scope is too powerful to track a fast-moving enemy, but that enemy isn’t yet close enough to make effective use of machine gun or shotgun. I wish every FPS had a gun like the Raptor in it. Fun.

    #3: Martin Sheen is Awesome.

    His voice, for the long-running character of “the Illusive Man” really lends a captivating touch. His character takes a page from the G-Man from Half-Life, or the Smoking Man from X-Files. It’s a device that just doesn’t get old: some powerful dude is behind the scenes pulling strings. He knows an untold number of secrets and he’s always one step ahead. He himself is a weakling, but his knowledge makes him immensely powerful. I’m a sucker for that character. Martin Sheen’s voice is perfect for the role. Also, I wish my computer desk looked like his:


    Games I Like: Deus Ex Human Revolution


    2012 - 02.15

    Okay, I wrote this like last September but never posted it for some reason.  So it’s behind the times, but I decided to post it anyway because my good man mister nine tenths shavin powda is playing through it.  Still relevant!

    Man it’s been like… FOREVER since the first one came out. “In the year two-thousaaaaand!”

    I’m not going to get like, super deep into this game because as mainstream as it is, someone else has already said it, and probably said it way better than I could.

    But let’s talk about what makes this cool: choices! An excellent example of the kind of options this game offers the player is when you need to examine some evidence being held within the Police Station. Being a former cop yourself, you may walk through the front door and use your conversational skills to persuade them to simply let you through. I tried this, but since I hadn’t purchased the SexyTalker upgrade, I totally got shot down. Okay, plan B? You could go down into the sewers and find a secret back-door entrance that will require some hacking skills to get open–I actually discovered that route later in the game. Or plan C, the route I took, navigate a series of alleyways, find the right fire escape, climb to the roof, and sneak in through an air duct!  Gordon Freeman style in the airducts bitches!  When will computer bad guys realize how easy it is to sneak inside ANYTHING just by climbing through the ventilation system?!

    As I alluded to earlier, if you want certain avenues to be open to you, that means you need to develop the corresponding abilities. As the game went on, I pumped up my hacking ability, which was definitely the right move; tons of hidden ammo caches can be found by hacking into storage units, and alternate paths open up, allowing you to circumvent guards that otherwise would have required a firefight.

    Another super cool benefit of hacking is the ability to shut down security cameras, and turn the automated turret/robot defense against your enemies. SWEET. There was one level, set in a shipping port, where I actually avoided almost all shooting, and just snuck from storage shed to storage shed, until I found the one with the high-level security terminal. The sounds of robotic defenses opening fire on the surprised guards was so worth the effort. I laughed an evil hoo hoo haa haaaa while watching it all happen over the security camera feed!

    As with the original Deus Ex, you also get the power to choose your own ending. While the conspiracy theories aren’t QUITE as thick, you DO get to effectively decide the fate of the world. The actual ending itself is one of four versions of stock footage set to a dramatic score and a nicely-done voiceover. It works very well! Human Revolution had one of the more memorable video game endings that I’ve seen in a while.

    Last thing I’ll note is that the musical score is top notch. The first one had a decent score, but I think they clearly surpassed it here. In fact, I’d say this game, at least for me, surpassed the original in a lot of ways. It’s a page-turner, plot-wise, and it was just… FUN! Except for the boss battles. Those sucked.


    Games I Like: Capsized


    2011 - 10.02

    The gameplay and the plot are both pretty simple: you’re a bold space warrior exploring the universe, when all of a sudden your ship has a catastrophic problem and everyone needs to evacuate! You and your crewmates make it to the escape pods and land on an unknown, alien planet. It’s full of lushly-illustrated vegetation and yes, scary aliens. You’ll have to shoot your way through to find your crewmates, send up a distress beacon, and hopefully escape!

    It’s a 2D platformer shoot-em up; Gameplay consists of mouseclicking like mad on anything that moves, exploring the world, and solving the occasional puzzle. Like I said, pretty straightforward. What gives this game legs is the superb visual and sound design. Seriously, it’s awesome.  The alien world around you is rich with detail and rendered in a distinctive hand-drawn style. It’s reminiscent of Machinarium, if you’ve played that. I have no idea how long it takes to create a world that looks like this, but man, it looks downright mesmerizing. I want more games that have this hand-drawn thing going.

    For an indie game made in large part by two dudes, it’s surprisingly long, and they do a good job of building up the anticipation at each turn. As simple as it is, they somehow manage to insert you into the drama fairly well; for instance I felt pretty excited to find a crashed escape pod from one of my buddies… and then pretty spooked and angry to find his dead body not far away–murdered by the smarter tribal aliens. I was like “nooo! I will avenge you my fallen brethren!” Maybe it’s the hand-drawn style, or the scarceness of fellow humans, but I felt unusually attached to my nameless space marine friends when I did find them.

    Anyway, if you’re lookin for a solid few nights worth of shoot-em-up entertainment, $10! Can’t go wrong for that price. I wholly endorse it.


    Games I Like: “Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP”


    2011 - 08.26

    I have no idea how they settled on such a mouthful of a name, and we already went over how much I kinda think tabets are stupid, but I have to admit: This game is totally radish.

    To sum it all up in one paragraph, it’s an 8-bit retro style puzzle/action adventure for the iPad (and other devices now too) with a charming sense of humor and masterfully done sound design. Why is it so cool? Well, I’d say simply “the vibe”. We’ll expand on that in a minute. Watching their trailer should give you a good idea (note, although they humorously insist otherwise, I don’t think watching this really spoils anything):

    I was leaving the next day, and so played through the entire game in one night on my cousin’s iPad, which took me about 3+ hours or so. I also played it almost in darkness, and with in-ear headphones on, which definitely added to the experience; counterbalancing the fact that I rushed all the way through the game in one sitting. Most definitely it would do the game better justice to space it out and play slowly.

    One of the innovative ideas it tosses out is that to complete certain stages, you need to play the game when the moon is in a certain phase. As in, the game knows what the actual moon, orbiting the Earth, is doing, and certain events can only happen on certain days of the month. That’s a brilliant concept. Obviously, if you’re determined, there is a way, within the game, that you can get around this. It’s almost too bad that they allowed you to. But still, awesome idea there.

    The game has a mimimal cast of characters, and essentially no spoken dialogue, outside of the rare humorous banter from a woodsman called “logfella”. His trusty sidekick “dogfella” serves as a guide to keep you on track when the goal maybe isn’t as obvious–always a welcome touch in any game. There were a few moments where I caught myself fruitlessly backtracking because I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing, but on the whole I managed to stay on task, which is a key attribute for puzzle games.

    The humor is a consistent source of enjoyment as you play. For example, you happen across some interesting detail in the woodland scenery and double tapping on it produces a small bit of text saying something to the effect of: {We happened across three spooky looking graves, randomly near the side of the road, and we wondered what was up with that.} This is a text adventure and for the most part, the text will keep a grin on your face.

    It’s also pretty overdramatic, for an 8-bit affair. There’s lots of lightning and thunder, there’s swords being raised to the sky, rainbows, giant stone faces, mysterious tomes, 8-bit monsters that somehow manage to be actually kinda scary, and enough little cryptic snippets of folklore to give the illusion that some larger, grandiose tale is hidden behind the minimalist framework of the game itself. The 8-bit art style works excellently in this magical mideval setting, where the pixelation gives you just enough detail to understand what things roughly look like, but at the same time obscures them to the extent that you sort of find your brain filling in the gaps, like how you imagine characters beyond an author’s description when you read a novel.

    S: S&S EP (that’s how the game abbreviates itself) is split into 4 acts or “sessions”, which is hip. A mysterious cigar smoking man with a giant throne called “The Archetype” provides a brief plot review and critiques your progress, before 8-bit curtains close over the screen with a thunderous mechanical clanking. Chapters are good. And giving credence to the “EP” in the name, there are sections of the game which take place inside of a dream. When you reach them, there’s a sweet visual of a record rising into the night sky and flipping over from side A to side B. A neat touch. I love the fact that there is a real world and a dream world, and in certain parts, they do overlap a little.

    When you first reach the dream world, the word “dream” appears in the sky, slowly fading away. There’s a few other parts where they do this same technique, for example “believe” when you stand on the store of a lake that it turns out you can simply walk across. It’s cool. You spend more time doing ‘sworcery’ than swordsmanship in the game, sleuthing out forest sprites with your magical musical abilities. The gameplay works; it’s fun. The pixellated, misty forest atmosphere makes you feel like there’s magic in the air, and you’re part of it.

    Something ususual for a game, and smart, is the fact that in the early stages you have 5 stars of health, and as the game progresses, you actually get fewer and fewer stars of health, until you eventually can only have 1, near the end.

    The final thing I’ll comment on is how totally BOMB the sound design is. Every little bird chip, raindrop, wolf howl, or chime to guide you toward a puzzle solution is meticulously chosen. It all fits together so cohesively. The game has sporadic music which plays after certain events or in certain locations too, which serves well to build the dread as monsters grow near, or heighten your triumph when a key solution happens. For those so inclined, composer Jim Guthrie has a 180g vinyl release “Sword & Sworcery LP: The Ballad of the Space Babies”

    I love how the soundtrack is the LP and the game is the EP. They’ve got some high-minded chatter over on the Superbrothers website, about how “One of our earliest goals for the game was to create a space that could also be described as ‘an album you can walk through.” Worth a read if you’re into the game. Normally I’d roll my eyes a bit at such artist-speak, but I have to admit, these dudes have kinda created something special here. Go play it!

    Games I Like: Inside A Star-Filled Sky


    2011 - 03.11

    In a world of easily classifiable game genres, this one is legitimately hard to explain! I think the best analogy would be, “it’s like the movie Inception”. You’ll see what I mean:

    Basically you’re a little 8-bit dude inside a procedurally generated (aka mostly random) maze, with a pea-shooter. The objective is to get past your enemies and make it to the exit, which takes you up a level. You goal is to get to as high of a level as you can. You can’t die in this game. If you take too many hits, the screen zooms WAY in on your pixelated self, and you find yourself back in the previous level. This is somewhat of an opportunity because anytime you pick up power-ups, they don’t kick in until the next level. So whatever you get in level 19 will apply itself on level 20. This means that when you get kicked down one level, you can selectively choose new power-ups which will help you get past the next level that killed you last time.

    Okay, so this is where it STARTS to get crazy: any enemy or power-up you see, you can “go into”. For example if an enemy is shooting a wide scattershot that bounces off the walls, making it impossible to get past him, you put the mouse cursor over him and hit shift. The screen zooms WAY in on him, and now you are “inside” of the enemy. You run around and get power-ups that are weaker and more useless than what he had before. Once you’re satisfied, you find the exit, go back out, and now the enemy is easy to defeat because you gave him useless power-ups!

    You can also do this with power-ups (although in my experience they tend to be hard)… so if you see a level 1 heat-seeking power-up and you say to yourself, gee, I really wish that was a level 9 health boost, you can “go into” it, and change it. If you die while you’re “inside” something, you get kicked back a level. So say you were on level 15 and you went into a power-up and died there–now you’ll find yourself on level 14.

    And this is where it gets REALLY crazy: you can “go into” things which are “inside” of other things. Say you went inside of an enemy but you can’t find any weak power-ups to sabotage him. Just “go into” a strong power-up and make it weaker. Woah. Things are getting trippy.

    You can also go into yourself.

    Dude.

    Although doing this simply takes you back one level. And I’m not sure why you’d want to do that. If you keep going back far enough that the level number turns negative, you turn into a ghost. Hah! The higher you go in level number, the game gets more difficult (duh); and curiously, this applies to negative numbers too. I went down to -15, and at that point it was hard to actually win, taking you progressively deeper and deeper as you keep losing.

    At first I was scratching my head. Then I was laughing. And after 20 more minutes I was like, wow, this is actually kind of genius. The game itself is very simplistic, but the idea of what you’re doing is weird as hell.

    I can think of a lot more things I wish it could do: I wish I could go into the walls to make my own path, I wish I could “go into” the exit (although I don’t know what it would do… maybe skip a level if it were extra hard to win “inside” the exit), I wish I could disable the music which is also procedurally generated based on what’s around you, I wish I could zoom the perspective out to see a bit more of what’s around me, and I wish there were some kind of incentive to go into yourself. So forth.

    In the later levels you start encountering baddies who relentlessly chase you down from across the maze and take many hits to kill. This makes it a lot harder to sit still for long or be choosy about which power-ups you want to collect for the next level. It also makes it more stressful. I bounced back and forth between 23 and 24 for quite some time, and each time I started level 24 I had this feeling of dread because I knew the really fast pink monster was coming…

    When you keep bouncing back and forth between the levels sometimes they stay the same for a little while. But after 3-5 times they change, which means you might be getting overwhelmed by enemies in an unfamiliar place and drop back several levels in a row. On the website the designer says, “see how high you can get. I got to level 26.” 24 is the best I could do. Damn you, fast pink monster.

    You gotta see this game to believe it. And since it’s only $1.75 + a donation that you choose, so there’s really no reason not to. It’s an indie game made by one guy, so go support him. And get your mind bent!