Site Index

Here is a link to my Designing a Better RPG series. And here is a list of my reviews to aid in site navigation (my tags are messy so this is not perfect).

Alpha Protocol :: Assassin’s Creed :: Assassin’s Creed 2 :: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood :: Bully: Scholarship Edition :: Dragon Age: Origins :: Dragon Age 2 :: Fable 2 :: Fallout 3 :: Grand Theft: Auto IV :: Mass Effect :: Mass Effect 2 :: Neverwinter Nights 2 :: Prince of Persia :: The Saboteur :: Saints Row :: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood :: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed :: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines :: The Witcher ::

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

me2_levelingA few random thoughts that wandered into my head as I started Deus Ex: Human Revolution for the PS3:

This game has a lot of loading screens. They are long.
I dig the music theme at the title screen.
This game has a lot of gold and brown colors.
I should have known that since the logo is also brown and gold.
The people in this game have small heads and big hands.
And, to Sean: crouching is not only implemented, but it’s important.

I’m not much of a fan of FPS, and I’ve never finished any of the prior Deus Ex titles, but games like Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 have bridged the gap, as I see it, and I’m now happily wandering around New Detroit, trying to figure out how to get into a police station. Read More

Witcher 2: Post #2

The following is based off my current playthrough-in-progress, covering the first chapter of the Witcher 2.

 

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I’m having fun with the combat in the Witcher 2. The game contains the tools necessary for a great fighting system. But it lacks polish and balance. The outcome is a system that is frustrating not for how bad it is, but for how close it gets to something really well done.

The Tools

There’s quick/weak attacks, and strong/slow attacks. There’s blocking, there’s parrying, there’s evading, there’s juggling, there’s fatigue (which, I now know, prevents you from blocking if you’re empty, and is accompanied by a sound that does not at all suggest at fatigue), and there’s stringing combinations together with properly-timed attacks. Plus, you can weave magic into the mix, but you can’t spam the “drink healing potion” button (because there ain’t one).

The Best

For those who have ever talked games with me, you know that my high-water mark for action game fighting comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum. What a perfect system. It is one of the few games where I was genuinely excited from, and satisfied by, fighting outside of the context of the story. Stick me in a room with a bunch of baddies, as the training rooms did, and I was made content for hours on end. For many years prior, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time held that title.

The latest Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, saw me spend a lot of time fighting baddies in a training room. But that was less out of enjoyment and more out of a desire to really grasp the combat system so that the game would be more enjoyable. That isn’t to say Brotherhood’s fighting is anything less than good, but it’s not to the level of Batman.

The Witcher 2′s combat feels inspired by these games. But there are problems.

Fighting against Groups

My primary gripe is that there is no effective way to fight groups — at least, not early on. The game excels when it’s you versus one or two others, maybe three others, but when the numbers rise beyond that the combat is frustrating.

Half of the problem is that if you do it properly, you string your attacks into a rhythm that focuses on one opponent. The moment your rhythm is disrupted or ends, the defender goes on the offensive. I’m not saying you can’t hit 5 or 6 different targets by bouncing around the battlefield, I’m saying that it is not an effective method of combat for a new player based on the controls.

The other half of the equation is the enemy AI. In a game like Batman, where group combat is handled flawlessly, the AI mirrors old kung fu movies. You face off against one foe while the rest circle, take a step back, and then lean in menacingly. They’re standing around, allowing the player to fight and have fun. Realistic? No. But that’s not what we want here. What we want is to see the player finish off one foe, and then one of the circling remainders jumps in for a shot.

In the Witcher 2, the foes all lunge at you at once. And while you start a series of combos against one foe, the remainders hit you in the back — not only disrupting your attack, but dealing double-damage for the rear attack. You’re also temporarily stunned each time you are hit, meaning your three foes now juggle away half of your health bar while you can only watch.

Moves

Movement during battles is handled pretty well. The Witcher can dodge his way about the battlefield by dropping and rolling out of (or into) harm’s way. Presumably, this gives you the ability to roll behind attacking foes and strike them in the back. In action, it never quite works out. Foes respond too quickly to keep you in front of them.

Balance

Throughout the first chapter, combat is balanced to make you feel heroic. Most fights square you off against singular or small groups of foes who are quickly dispatched. Their challenge comes from great numbers, and surviving waves of combat. Killing a few nekkers is easy. Taking on a dozen, a few at a time, is an exciting challenge that forces you to be careful and patient.

But, as mentioned in the first impressions post, some fights fall outside this zone. The fight against Letho is one example. The fight on the prison barge is another. These fights can be very difficult. In the case of Letho, like the fight against the kayran, things are more forgivable because you realize these encounters are pattern recognition challenges. The goal is to figure out your opponents patterns, and then dodge or attack based on the tells. Again, the game isn’t precise enough for these encounters to work well, but I appreciate the effort at a change up.

The prison barge fight is deeply flawed, pitting you against more than a half-dozen armed-and-aggressive guards. The saving graces here are that a) there are locations on the boat where the guards don’t follow, allowing you to sit back and recover energy or try to pick off stragglers from the group, and b) you have an ally who generates a huge amount of threat, meaning the majority of the guards focus on him instead of you. Since your ally cannot die, this allowance comes with the ridiculous humor value of letting you sit back and watch your ally get juggled around the perimeter of the boat by the guards.

‘Tis but a scratch!

In the Witcher, many foes fall from one well-executed string of attacks, a combination of, say, 5 or 6 successfully-timed strikes. Some regular foes, however, can absorb 4 or 5, or more, such combinations. I’ve said this before and I’m saying it again now: when combat is abstracted, as it is with the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons, I can suspend my disbelief when I’ve hit an ogre 20 times because I’m imagining little hits weakening and tiring my foe.

In a game like the Witcher 2, where the visuals are so amazing, I don’t want to watch my hero grinding his way to victory by sticking his sword in a guard’s face 20 times, only to note along the way that the guard’s health bar is still half-full. If I can prove I can do something a couple times, don’t make me do it another dozen times or more.

So You Hate It?

No! As I said above, I really like it. I’ve been through countless battles, and I can count the encounters that I became frustrated with on one hand.

The Witcher 2 does a lot of good things. I don’t want to see this game’s fighting re-made to perfectly copy Arkham Asylum. I like the fatigue on blocking, even if it’s not intuitive. I like that you can’t drink potions during a fight. I like that you have to time your attacks. I like the critical hit/kills. I like the animations, especially for the further-along-the-chain attacks. I like the occasionally QTEs. I like the realism that a single hero can be felled by a few normal people if they swarm you (even though they shouldn’t swarm you). And I like the various ways you can level up your hero to shape how you engage opponents.

Tighten up the reaction time so it feels more responsive, give the player an obvious opportunity to “potion up” prior to tough fights, weaken the excessively healthy individuals as in games like Brotherhood and Arkham Asylum, and prevent more than 2 or 3 people from attacking at once and you’ve got something special. Hopefully future patches for the game improve the experience and get it even closer to its potential.

Witcher 2: First Impressions

Despite being very excited for it, and despite calling the first Witcher my game of 2009, thanks to a backlog of games I’ve only now started playing the Witcher 2. And what do I think?

Overall I like it. I’ve just completed the first chapter (which means there are spoilers related to the conclusion of the first chapter only). And I’m getting that feeling that comes when you start to really obsess on something. The game has its flaws, but it does some things so well that the flaws become easy to overlook. Such as?

Here are some specific thoughts and observations:

As with most RPGs, the first few hours are overwhelming. The Witcher 2 is no different when you’re trying to figure out combat, equipment, upgrades for your equipment, herbalism and alchemy, using your amulet, figuring out the map and quest system, etc. It really is borderline unforgiving. And that’s without referencing the combat difficulty when you’re facing off against groups, and trying to catch up on all the intricate story happenings.

Once you get past the learning curve, or at least the first wave of it (in the Witcher 1, it took one full playthrough before I was taking advantage of all my abilities), it’s pretty easy to settle into the game. But this game could have used a smaller, more guided tutorial level that let you practice with and learn the value of your character.

In the opening scene, with you in prison and speaking to Roche, you are presented with three options: three different sections of the story to tell. In retrospect, the game wants you to pick them in a linear order. Each subsequent choice is a little more difficult and builds progressively upon character control lessons you’re learning. But when faced with three options, players can pick in any order for any reason. It might have helped to have that play out more linearly.

While trying to get used to the game, I also tweaked the graphics settings constantly to find the best ratio of performance to aesthetics. Oddly (though maybe this is just me since I’m more of a console gamer), I found that I can play with the graphics set to ultra (minus uber-sampling) and get frames in the 40-60 ranges (and it’s usually right about 60) — at 800×480. That makes the smaller fonts jaggy and difficult to read, but if I raise the resolution to 720 or 1080 pixels wide, even at low graphic quality the frames aren’t nearly as good and drop to the 15-20 range. I’m sure this elicits little more than a “duh” response from most, but I found myself surprised at the contrast. Regardless, I can “settle” for a game that looks fantastic and runs smoothly.

The game’s combat want me to play it as an action game, with quick reflexes and precise responses. However, the engine itself is not up to the task. It is a little sluggish and lacks in precise control.

For example, in my battle with the kayran I died a few times when a tentacle hit where I had been a moment ago. As another example, when hitting block I occasionally (frequently?) hear the sound that accompanies attempting to cast a spell without the requisite energy. The work-around is hitting another button before trying to block again, but a game’s major systems should not need a work-around for basic actions. If they built the engine from the ground up for this game, then they need to put a little extra work into improving the controls.

Balance is poor. The fight against Letho and also the kayran fight both made me want to rage quit. Same thing with the endrega queen. The fights are so far beyond the rest of the game’s combat that it should be a side plot that you can choose if you want to overcome it — except the kayran and Letho are both on the critical path. When I look on-line to find other people’s strategies, they’re a mix of cheating/exploiting the system and its limitations, combined with frequent re-loads until you also get lucky.

The game’s world is alive. Merchants don’t stand in empty courtyards while it’s raining out. Instead, when it rains people run for cover. And when they’re not working, they spend time at the inn or go home or hang out in groups. Additionally, there are people, and signs of people, everywhere — including on the way out to adventure areas where guards are fighting to secure the region with trap-setting and monster slaying. I appreciate the latter note. Most RPGs make you feel like you’re trying to save the world without any assistance from the helpless citizenry. In the Witcher 2, there’s the sense they’ve created a stalemate position which needs your heroic push to topple things in their favor.

Choice is limited. There was the choice of whether or not to fire a ballista to make an ensuring fight easier. There was the choice of fighting a strong warrior one-on-one, or allowing his back-up to assist him. There was the choice of allowing Roche to help you escape, or to die. In other words, choice isn’t a major component of the game.

I was slightly disappointed with the level of choice in the first Witcher since I thought it was their primary goal, but I understand what they are trying to accomplish better now. I’m certain there are a few significant, story-shaping choices later in the game. But the way-you-proceed-through-a-quest choices, and further opportunities to impact the narrative, are more limited. And, not to defend the game against an issue of hype versus reality, wouldn’t choice have to be limited in a game that’s supposed to go as long as 40 hours? Also, there are so many side quests to explore and optionally accept that it satisfies a lot of the sense of linearity that might otherwise have pervaded the game. Coupled with the world’s level of detail and sense of life, I am less the hero changing things as I see fit, and more the traveler, journeying down the path of the story and loving every moment of it — at least, every moment that doesn’t feature an impossible fight that relies on me hitting the block button accurately.

Mid-Year 2011 Review

Inspired by Rock, Paper Shotgun:

1. What games have you played this year?

From the start of January until the end of June, I have played (and finished the starred titles): * Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Psychonauts, Disney Epic Mickey, * Donkey Kong Country Returns, * Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, * Dragon Age II, Majesty (Gold Edition), * Alan Wake, * LittleBIGPlanet 2, * Heavy Rain, and * Portal 2.

2. What’s your Game Of The Year from that list so far?

Portal 2. Even after finishing it, I found that I was really enjoying going back and re-playing levels for the trophies. Everything about the game was perfectly put together, from the sound to the level design to the voice acting to the puzzles. Loved it. Still have the multiplayer maps to go.

3. What else will you play this year?

In the last few days, I’ve been spending more time with the Witcher 2. I will post a first impression on it soon.

After I finish the Witcher 2 I will move on to L.A. Noire. After that, I aim to play: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Alice: Madness Returns, Dungeon Siege III, Infamous 1, Ico, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row: The Third, and X-Men Destiny.

4. Do you expect your game-of-the-year choice to last until the end-of-year list season?

Possibly. But I imagine Skyrim, the Witcher 2, AC: Revelations, and Arkham City have the best chance of displacing Portal 2 as my GotY.

DA2: Post 02

It’s been a little while since I updated y’all on my DA2 playthrough, so here are some more thoughts…

Is this a good time to talk?

Way back when, in Baldur’s Gate II, I was fighting a dragon. The dragon breathed fire on my party and everyone was looking brutalized. Suddenly, the game froze and the camera shifted. I panicked a little. What is going on?! Turns out, my companion Aerie wanted to tell my other companion, Jaheira, that she really liked her hair (I guess she approved of the fiery/ashen look). I laughed at the time, but I see that moments like this continue to exist. In DA2, Bethany and Aveline decided to have a conversation about having kids — while we were fighting some spiders.

The more the merrier

I didn’t like my group so much when it was just me, Bethany, and Aveline. But now I’ve got a real party happening, and I dig it. Added to the group are: Anders, Fenris, Isabella, Merrill, and Varric. I quite like the variety and the constant debate over the best set-up to complement my hero. Usually, I’m bringing along Bethany for the healing/fire damage, Fenris and/or Aveline for the warrior might, and/or Isabella/Varric for some bonus damage.

Most of my group seems less interested in chatting, but I have had a few food conversations with Merrill, Varric, and Anders.

Slicing and Dicing

Combat certainly isn’t strategic. In fact, it’s quite easy (on normal). That said, I enjoy it. I like sneaking my rogue past the front-line ranks and then chopping them up from behind. I find that when my effort to slip through are blocked, I’m hitting for 8-12 damage at a time and feeling pretty inept. But once I launch a backstab, body parts are flying everywhere and numbers like 250 are rolling up.

I’m tempted to up the difficulty to create more of a challenge, I’ve really only had to re-load a very small handful of times, but I usually resist. I’d prefer to enjoy the story and quests first, get a sense of the overall game progression and master its systems, then, on a second play, I can fiddle with higher difficulty.

Are four stars better than three?

I have heard rumblings that people don’t like the new star-rating system for equipment. They say it’s dumbed down and treats people as stupid. I disagree. If you didn’t have to think about it at all, and your character auto-equipped better gear, maybe that would take it too far. But right now I have 5-star equipment going unused while relying on 3-star and 4-star equipment. It really depends on the side abilities of the equipment and your own preferences.

And on a related note, do I hate that I can’t give my companions new armor to wear — like everyone else? No. I tend to ignore outfitting my companions in BioWare games as it is. I feel like I’ve been let off the leash here. Thank you!

That said, a lot of my companions are wearing 0-star or 1-star armor. I can see how this frustrates people, especially if there is plenty of better armor available. BioWare should have either implemented an auto-upgrade for companion gear — or allowed companions to auto-equip better gear. Or something to that effect.

Last note on this point, I do like the plentiful gear. In DA:O, I complained that I would find something good and be stuck with it for most of the game. Here, I seem to be rotating through equipment much more rapidly. I prefer this.

In and Out

I’m finding that most of the quests feel like they’re wrapped up in about 10-30 minutes. I hit a dungeon and prepare for a long slog, and just as I’m getting warmed up I’m done. Is short bad? No, not necessarily. There are a lot of quests available so instead of taking a lot of time on one long quest, I can jump through a bunch. I’m also liking that I feel less put off to play if time is short. That is, if I have an hour to play — I don’t mind hopping into DA2. I feel like I can still accomplish something.

Other random thoughts

I liked the concept of staying in one location immediately. I didn’t know if it would work, but I did like the concept. So far, I’m liking how it plays out. Traipsing about the world is fun in other games, but delving into the current location here has been just as enjoyable. I look forward to seeing if/how things change when I start jumping forward in time.

Along that same line of thinking, I’m finding that the game establishes a pretty straight-forward pattern. You scan the day-time map, scan the night-time map, and then scan the local-region map. You find the quests. You run through them. You activate new quests along the way. You talk to your companions. You repeat the process. Repetitive? Technically, yes, but I enjoy the pattern. It sets goals, establishes expectations, and creates a sense of reward.

Does this change how I view the motivation? No. I still feel “unmotivated”. I’m caught up in all the little quests now, certainly, but I feel no overall drive pushing me forward through the story. And, at this point, I have no idea what my ultimate motivation is. I understand I will learn this as I play. I hear the last 5-10 hours really tie everything together. But at this point it feels like: make money, invest money to join caravan, make more money… retire? I know there’s more than that, but that’s how I feel now. And, as someone who doesn’t care much about money, in real life or in games, I’m a little wanting for something more meaningful.

Last comment, in DA:O I primarily used one character. When I got to the late stages and had to play with a group that didn’t feature my hero, I struggled. I had played a mage all game long, and this group had only warriors and rogues. I didn’t know how to use them effectively. I’m finding that happening here as well. When Hawke happens to die (rarely — maybe twice so far), and I get jumped over to a warrior or mage — I have this desire to set the controller down and watch. Unfortunately, the AI says to me, “Oh! Let me disable myself so you can play this new character” — leaving me to fend for myself. Sure, I could play around with the others and figure it out, but I am not interested nor encouraged. For people like me, I think the solution is to have a mini-tutorial early on where you play all three character types and can get used to them. This won’t be an issue when I re-play the game, but for those of us on our first playthrough, or those of us who only intend to play once, it’s a problem.

Anyway, I’m at level 9 and 12 hours in. My companions are occasionally spouting off one-liners to let me know that I should hit the Deep Road expedition. Soon! I still have bunches of quests to wrap up. :)

DA2: First Impressions

I’m lagging on adding my Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood reviews; I usually post while playing, but here I’m done and haven’t posted. Don’t take that to mean I didn’t love the game. I absolutely loved it. I finished with around 28 hours of play, and that got me to 60% done with “everything”. I re-built Rome to 100%, went through the Subject 16 storyline, and completed all of the critical path and side plot quests. I also completed the training challenges and found the modern day artifacts. All that’s left to do, really, is remove the Borgia flags from Rome, maybe finish a few shop quests — but I think I will pass on that.

So while I do intend to add at least one more post on AC: Brotherhood — first, there’s Dragon Age II. I recently got my copy and played for almost four hours today. Here are my initial reactions:

Combat:

I played the demo three or four times so my reaction today isn’t as jarring as it would have been otherwise. To be honest, I don’t really think combat is all that different in DA2 from Dragon Age: Origins. I’d say the only differences are that it feels faster, the animations are more diverse, there are more things to do during the fight, and you get to press the [A] button over and over. I don’t see the point in making the player press [A], but the rest of the changes are fine with me and represent a better overall experience from DA:O. I could compare the game to Arkham Asylum or Brotherhood, but that’s not what DA is about. I anticipated spending more time staring at cool-down timers, but so far I haven’t. Then again, I’m a dual-wielding rogue with only one cool-down power, backstab. This is a comment I may have to revisit in a later post.

The system of combat aside, the biggest change in the flow of combat is that it usually occurs in rounds. You see monsters up ahead and you charge to fight them, but then mid-combat more pop up behind you — or all around you. Like ME2, DA2 seems to be moving more in the direction of taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to make decisions on the fly. I liked it in ME2 and I’m liking it here.

Story:

(spoilers?) So far, the story is that my guy Hawke, and family, are fleeing the dark spawn. We decided to hide out in the coastal city, Kirkwall. Getting in to Kirkwall meant a year’s worth of indentured servitude for me and sis. Once in, we discovered that uncle gave up our estate to cover a gambling debt. Oh, and Flemeth asked us to deliver an amulet — which I just finished putting to rest on an altar. I’m generally OK with the story so far. It’s a personal story, which is nice, and it’s a simple, easy-to-follow story, which I appreciate. My biggest criticism of the story is how quickly it jumps and how much I don’t get to experience.

When we started the journey, the game’s narrator mentioned that we boarded a ship and endured some tough times, but we were so happy when we finally saw land! And, as indentured servants, me and sis worked really hard in the seedy underbelly — doing those things we did. After regaining our freedom, we even bumped into a guy who wanted to chat about “those things we did.” I hear a lot of people complaining that DA2 has a slow start. I’m guessing this kind of stuff is part of the reason.

Motivation:

The big thing is always motivation. The player should be motivated to progress the story, because he cares about the events or because he wants to see what’s next or because he wants to kill stuff. There has to be some reason. So far, I feel like a back-seat driver. I’m not so much curious about what happens next. I have nothing “to do” in the sense of “goals”. My character seems to want to make money. That’s something. I suppose my motivation to continue playing is that it’s fun so far — I enjoy gaining levels and upgrading gear — and I hear the game gets really exciting after the first 8-10 hours or so. But, story wise, I don’t think there have been any real hooks yet.

Volume:

The music and VO are pretty soft out of combat. And booming in combat. I have to resist the urge to crank the volume when I’m exploring and muting the volume during fights. That aside, I’m finding that I’m listening to the VO a lot more than I have in the past. I think that’s a testament to better flow (fewer long-winded monologues), and quality voicing.

Exploration:

I think I remember playing DA:O around the same time period as AC2. Now I’m playing the follow-ups to each in the same time period. The problem is that exploration is such a focus in AC — and so very, very well done. And in DA2 it’s disappointing. I hate saying that but walking into Kirkwall isn’t impressive; it’s a series of small maps (oftentimes, indoors or out, you’re exploring “hallways”) with a few stationary, repeating-animation shop owners and no crowds. In Brotherhood, Rome feels lived in. I believe it. I loved that city and level design. It created such amazing levels of immersion. You may say this criticism is unfair, and I almost feel it is myself, but my understanding is that I’ll spend much of my time in DA2 navigating the city of Kirkwall. Even a “2D” version (that is, the removal of parkour) of Brotherhood’s Rome would have been pretty awesome — and beaten the pants off of what I’ve seen of Kirkwall. Note to BioWare: that’s your goal for next time.

Equipment:

Money, for one, seems to be coming much faster than it did in DA:O. For a character so worried about making money, I seem to be doing a very good job of it so far. I had heard that BioWare auto-sent items to junk so you knew it was safe to sell. Yes, it takes away some of the realism, but I don’t think it in any way detracts from the game. We’re supposed to be focused on the story, not sorting through our inventory to figure out which items need to be saved for gifts or potions, and which can get us money. Right?

Party Members:

I… generally like the people in my group. Right now I have Aveline, Bethany, Varric, and Merrill. Bethany is my sister, and doesn’t stand out very much one way or the other. Aveline I like because I need a warrior, but I haven’t spoken much with her. I did go out of my way to re-recruit her after she disappeared from my party (I must have missed the line where she said she was leaving me, thankfully she came back). Varric seems to be potentially amusing but hasn’t said much yet, either. And Merrill is too nervous for her own good.

And… ?

That’s all for now. I’ll write more later. Oh wait, you want a summary opinion? OK. I’m enjoying it. I am. It’s taking me a little time to get my mind off Brotherhood and back into a DA state of being, but it is happening. DA2 feels a lot like DA:O to me. Little changes here and there — kind of like the jump from ME1 to ME2. BioWare is figuring out and refining their formula, while at the same time trying to keep the foundation feeling settled. I sometimes worry about the direction their RPGs are moving. I also worry at times that they’re not moving enough. It’s a fine line. But for now, for me, I’m liking DA2 and I’m looking forward to putting some more hours into the game.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Post 01

There are a few new features that improve the Assassin’s Creed in the franchise’s latest iteration, Brotherhood. For this post, I’ll talk about “Kill Streaks”.

When I first heard someone reference kill streaks, I assumed it was some scoring mechanism. I’d kill a bunch of people and, like a first-person shooter, the game would exult in my devastation. Turns out, that is not the case at all. A kill streak is a game-play mechanic, a way of, if done properly, chaining attacks together that makes combat pretty exciting, fast-paced, and makes Ezio look very lethal — which he should be by this point in his career.

Figuring out how to perform the kill streak was the hardest part for me, even though it’s really simple (I just wasn’t getting the idea of which buttons to press when). Once I got the basics, I received a lot of enjoyment out of mastering the system.

It starts out with you and some combat participants. Usually, someone nearby attacks you. You counter their attack and kill them in the process. But, really, you don’t need to start the sequence with a counter. I believe any killing animation will do.

While your assassination animation is playing, press the left analogue stick toward your next target and press the attack button. I usually spam the button in order to make certain the next chain is properly triggered. How often or when you press the button doesn’t matter. It’s very simple. And as soon as you kill off that first guy, Ezio immediately leaps at your selected target and kills him outright. No need to wait around for the next opening or attack to counter.

Reading this, you might wonder “is it dumbed down?” No, not at all. Instead, it creates fluidity in combat. As I wrote, you’re spending less time sitting around waiting for someone to attack you and more time killing — you know, the fun stuff.

“Does it take all the challenge out of the game,” might be your next question. No, because, like Batman’s Arkham Asylum, there’s a rhythm to it all and it requires you to keep an eye out on the battlefield around you.

Like Arkham Asylum, your next target should be the guy about to attack you. If you attack someone else, then while you’re trying to kill your target — you’re exposed to attack from someone else. If you are hit or grabbed (yes, the game now features grabs — opponents can grab you and leave you open to hits from their allies), the kill streak ends. The kill streak can also end if you aren’t close enough to a target and have to take time to move toward them. Again, you want to be aware of your surroundings and positioning. There are times where you attack the wrong person. The animation starts and someone else lunges at you. As long as you’re quick with the counter-attack, you can usually turn their attack into another kill and keep the kill-streak mode going.

OK, maybe I should not have said “no” to the challenge question. The game is a little easier. But it’s also much less frustrating. And I think that matches your character’s skill as an assassin.

Thankfully, there’s a practice arena in the animus to let you perfect the system. They give you some baddies and a time limit and give you some scoring goals as a target. I think the top goal is 300 or 400 points — which I managed to double when I was first getting into the system. I’ll have to try it again.

I love the iteration on their combat system. I originally found the AC combat system to be good, but not nearly as good as Arkham Asylum’s. I feel like kill streaks definitely borrows on the greatness of Arkham Asylum and I’m no longer unfavorably comparing AC against it.

Next time, I’m going to comment on their new assassin’s guild questing system.

Catching Up (Again)

When last I wrote, I was starting up Red Dead Redemption. Starting up! That feels like forever ago. In fact, it was in July — just as I was starting as an instructor at Tribeca Flashpoint. Coincidence? Have I been too busy working to play? Never! I may not have been posting much, but I have been digging through some games. The brief run-down?

After beating Red Dead Redemption, I followed that up by beating Dante’s Inferno, Fallout: New Vegas, Fable 3, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, and Donkey Kong Country Returns. I’ve also started Epic Mickey, Psychonauts, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Dragon Age: Ultimate Edition. And, finally, I started but gave up on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and A Boy and His Blob.

I’m not sure if I’ll be writing thoughts on most of these titles since it’s after the fact, but I intend to get a new post up (one for sure, we’ll see about more than) on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in the next day or two.

Red Dead Redemption: Post 01

I played a few hours of RDR (Red Dead Redemption) at Lisa’s house so this isn’t a true “first impressions” post. But considering the size of the game and the relatively few hours I’ve had with the game so far, I’d safely consider this an “early impressions” post. Without further ado, here are a few random thoughts on the game so far:

  • I love horse-back riding. That isn’t surprising, but it is comforting. And what I mean is that I loved driving around town in GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. But I the new vehicle physics threw me off in GTA IV and I found myself cabbing it as often as possible. Thankfully, RDR is a return to form and I once again enjoy traveling about the country-side. Yes, there is a quick-travel option but I would rather make the trek.

I love the setting. I don’t have a thing for cowboys or the Wild West, but it really works here.

Let me put it this way.  In GTA, you have to make an effort to suspend your disbelief when you’re clearing out a den of drug-dealers and you’re wondering why the police don’t handle it, etc. But in the Wild West, when you find out some criminals on the outskirts of town are kidnapping towns folk, and there’s only one sheriff, I don’t think twice about going in with a rifle and a posse, trying to rescue people.

Additionally, I love seeing America in this youthful stage. No roads. No cars. Small towns. Complete wilderness right outside of town. No one regulating behavior. Every time you are traveling down a path and see someone on the horizon, you wonder if there is going to be bloodshed.

Graphically speaking, I love the setting. The first time I hit the wilderness, I was in awe. I find that amusing since you’d think a game like GTA IV would be more impressive with its big city feel. But I love seeing the desert on full display. When you see mountains far off on the horizon and realize you can go there, it makes you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything. Plus, I love seeing all the stars at night. Maybe it isn’t the most realistic depiction of the heavens, but I appreciate sitting at a camp fire and enjoying the view.

Combat is also enjoyable. Squeezing [LT] causes your reticule to lock on any nearby targets. The target follows them for a second before stopping. The end result is a system that is newbie friendly, accommodates for the weakness of an analog stick for control, and still requires a little skill.

There are a few issues. Sometimes you’re on horse back and trying to target someone who rips past you. You spin the camera trying to keep up with them but now they’ve circled back and are heading the other way. As a result, you look like an idiot and never get the pointer close enough to activate the auto-targeting.

Compensating for that, dead-eye mode is another perk that makes things a little easier. In dead-eye mode, time slows down for a few seconds and allows you to make quick work of a lot of foes. I’ve only used it a few times and there have been hiccups as I figure it out. For example, sometimes I accidentally end up shooting one target two or three times when once was enough. Or I can’t remember how to activate it. Or I don’t know how much time is left until I can activate it again. Or I activate it and accidentally leave the mode when there were more targets available. But I get the feeling that once I use it a few more times I’ll lean on it much more heavily for those critical times.

  • Breaking in horses is one of those activities that either make you feel like you don’t have enough fingers or that the developers didn’t do a good enough job of mapping the controller. You need to ready your lasso by pressing [LT]. Simultaneously, you need to move [RS] to aim the lasso and [LS] to steer your horse. You need to tap or hold [A] to control your horse’s speed. You need to press [RT] to throw your lasso. And you need to hold [RB] to maintain your grip on a successfully-lassoed horse. It can be a bit much. To be fair, as much as I feel overwhelmed by this, I haven’t had much trouble successfully doing it.

The missions and story have been enjoyable so far. Everything I’m doing is geared toward getting immersed into the land and it’s working. I’m learning a bit about my character (apparently, the feds have sent me out west, away from my kid and wife, to track down an old gang-mate who is causing problems; I’m guessing this is part of some plea-bargain deal on my character’s part), I’m getting into the rancher lifestyle, and I’m figuring out what life was like in the Old West. Examples of missions include such tasks as getting cows back to the ranch in the middle of a storm and getting a snake-oil salesman back to town in a horse-drawn carriage while being chased by thugs.

I also have to add that the GTA series mixes movie-like portrayals and humor, but GTA IV felt a bit more absurd to me. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas had something of an intelligent subtlety to their, for example, radio commentary belittling conservatives or politically-correct actions, but GTA IV took it to a ridiculous extreme where the subtlety was lost and the criticisms were outright and unfair. So far, I see none of that in RDR. There have been a few interesting commentaries on the strong points of libertarianism in reference to the government sending me to assassinate a problem as opposed to allowing society to handle its own problems. Maybe it doesn’t have the same humor that the aforementioned GTA titles have, but it’s a welcome relief to GTA IV’s effort.

As I said, I’m not very far into the game. I’m still in New Austin and I understand there are at least three other major locations to which I’ll later travel. And I’ve also read each location has about 20 main missions and I doubt I’ve done more than half. But I have spent a lot of time helping people, exploring, picking flowers (…), collecting bounties, and, thanks to Candice taking over for stretches, winning at horse shoes. And so far, I am enjoying this much more than I ever enjoyed GTA IV. Again, these games are supposed to be about driving and shooting. With GTA IV, I felt half of that equation was broken. With RDR, I think the train is back on the tracks. I’m looking forward to seeing how the game continues.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Before getting distracted by Alpha Protocol, I played through the Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands.

As far as my interest in the franchise, I loved the Sands of Time (and beat it at least three times) but only somewhat enjoyed Warrior Within (I probably would have liked Warrior Within more had the ending not soured the experience for me). I missed the Two Thrones (one day I may catch up with it, but, based on Warrior Within, I may not) but played the awful Prince of Persia (2008). That game soured me on the franchise and I assumed the developers had no interest in creating a game with content more similar to the Sands of Time — that is, more thoughtful puzzles and less “press B to proceed through level.”

However, now that I’ve played the Forgotten Sands I can say that my faith in the franchise is restored. Not that I give scores, but comparatively speaking I’d put the original Prince of Persia (I played it in 1992, but it was first released in 1989) and the Sands of Time at the top of the mountain. The Forgotten Sands would be about three-quarters of the way, maybe a little higher, up toward the peak.

What did I like?

  • It was much closer to the Sands of Time in terms of puzzle-based platformer action. When you enter a new area you have to look around, figure out where you want to end up and then follow along backward from there to try to figure out how to get there. The Sands of Time relished in challenging the player to unlock the route. The Forgotten Sands makes it slightly easier to figure out where you need to go, but slightly harder to get there because manual dexterity is much higher in demand (there are many sequences where you must manage the coordination to jump through a water fall, freeze the water immediately after you pass through so that you can land on another waterfall, run up the waterfall, jump back through the prior waterfall by unfreezing and then freezing it again, and so forth). I’m more a fan of the prior, but I did really enjoy the latter — albeit with some “occasional” frustration-based profanity. And speaking of puzzles, there were more puzzles in this one than in the Sands of Time — and I was glad for that.
  • I know we’re talking about a game where you can run up walls and chop up the undead, but the bits in PoP (2008) where you were flying or doing crazy double-jumps by swinging from your partner irked me. The Forgotten Sands moves the franchise back a step or two closer toward reality. A step or two, people. You’re still fighting the undead and running up walls and, now, freezing water falls, but it’s at a level of realism I like for the franchise.
  • As you progress through the game, you gain levels in a way that is similar to RPGs. Each time you gain a level you earn a point which you can use to unlock or improve your abilities. You could focus on the strength of your sword or your overall health or a power derived from the elements (fire, water, earth, and air). I thought this, along with the return of the old-familiar power of turning back time, was a great inclusion.
  • I don’t often make much more than a passing comment on the graphics of any given game, so I won’t go on with this point, but it did look really nice. A lot of the scenes reminded me of the Sands of Time — but to a much higher degree of fidelity, like going from VHS to DVD (despite not liking Pop (2008), I’d say, graphically speaking, that title would carry the Blu-ray comparison). And the ending, where you’re kinda/sorta surfing along chunks of stone that are being carried by a sand storm? Pretty impressive. Speaking of engine comparisons between the two titles, I think the camera also struck me as a good bit better than the camera in the Sands of Time as well.
  • A lot of games with in-game collectibles toss a bazillion items into the world and it becomes a huge grind to find them all — a grind usually not worth pushing through. The Forgotten Sands did a good job of tipping you off that a sarcophagus was nearby, and only gave you about 21 or so to bother with, and as a result I enjoyed trying to collect them all — which I did, though acquiring the last few presented quite the challenge. You earned a good bit of experience by following through with the challenging, which also made it worth the effort.
  • Finally, I enjoyed the two bonus challenges. I played through each of them after beating the game and found they elevated my skill with the game to a new level. In fact, I got so hooked on them that I had originally intended to load them up just to see what they offered, but ended up playing through the two challenges many times over the course of a couple hours.

What didn’t I like?

  • There isn’t a lot I didn’t like with the Forgotten Sands, and there’s nothing I outright hated. Instead, this is more a list of things that could have been better.
  • The fights against very large creatures frustrating. It was difficult to consistently strike my targets’ legs while dodging their attacks. Additionally, they spin on an axis and push you to the side as they spin. Sometimes you get stuck between their legs (which makes the fight easier since they can’t hit you). It did not feel as refined as many of the other elements in the game. The good news is that there weren’t a lot of these sequences and you could power through them without too much bother.
  • The combat system is only fair. It’s slightly better than the Sands of Time which, when I first played it, I thought was really good — but many games have improved combat since then and besides, as I’ve said before, I’m now forever spoiled by the superior Batman: Arkham Asylum.
  • The game is short, maybe in the 10 hour range. Personally, I can definitely get behind a short game that’s well-designed and free of time-wasting filler as the Forgotten Sands is. But paying $60 bucks for a game, as many do, may leave one feeling ripped off. Fortunately, the game has been out a while so if you’re going to play it based on this write-up I doubt you’ll be spending more than half of the original $60.

One last comment, I read through several reviews and many of them said they liked the game but felt like it was too much of a rehash of the Sands of Time. After subjecting myself to Prince of Persia (2008), I have to say that an updated rehash of the Sands of Time is not a bad thing — especially if that’s the biggest criticism with the title.