Monday, December 20, 2010

Print This Out and Put It Where A Loved One Might Find It -
2010 Edition

Every year for the last (*checks... oh.) one year, this website has offered up a list of suggestions for games worth buying on Steam during their holiday sale, either as last-minute gifts or as guilty pleasure purchases for yourself. I was planning on writing a blog post of recommendations prior to today, but with the sale starting hot on the heels of a giveaway, I was slightly caught off-guard. However, I'd been considering some things on my list to suggest, so I'd like to share them with you now. (The games on last year's list still stand, of course.)

Poker Night at the Inventory - Steam link
I mentioned pre-ordering Poker Night in a previous post, and I've now had a chance to play through it. In this game, you play a pretty straight-forward tournament of Texas Hold'em against Max (of the Sam and Max point-and-click game series), Strongbad (of Homestar Runner fame), The Heavy (of Team Fortress 2), and Tycho (of Penny Arcade fame). The characters make witty remarks about the proceedings of the tourney, as well as engage in banter with each other about their daily lives while playing. However, the banter seems to run dry fairly quickly, especially the one-line comments about how you're playing and whether they're betting or folding, so if you're simply buying this game because it's got a few characters you love, you're probably buying it for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps surprisingly, Poker Night at the Inventory is worth buying simply because it's a good poker game. There aren't a lot of frills to the game, but the un-tampered-with simplicity is what makes it such a good choice. The AI seems slightly erratic at times, but some would argue that that's how poker should be played. (Or the AI is just trouncing me regardless... and I'm still on normal difficulty!) What Poker Night lacks in variety, it makes up for in its straightforward-ness. If you're looking for a good, cheap poker game that may surprise you with the occasional laugh, Poker Night at the Inventory is worth a go.

VVVVVV - Steam link - (demo available)
VVVVVV, which debuted back in January if I remember correctly, could possibly be described as one of the gaming highlights of my year. The 2-D retro platformer by Terry Cavanagh is based on the principle that your character, Captain Viridian, cannot jump, but rather, reverses gravity to overcome obstacles. I should mention that there are plenty of obstacles (namely a ridiculous amount of spikes) waiting to kill you, so the simple task of getting from point A to point B, which might be as short as a few pixels away, can be a grueling task. Despite the difficulty, VVVVVV is terrifyingly addictive, as you can't help but give a particular challenge "just one more try." I remember when I first played through the game and spent close to a half hour attempting to pass one notoriously difficult passage (pictured here at the halfway point). I'll never forget throwing my arms up in triumph and screaming when I finally nailed what seemed like an impossible task. (I'm glad no one else was home at the time.)

That was nearly a year ago now, and after multiple replays through the game, beating that passage is absolutely no problem at all for me. I've mastered the game to the point where I can beat it in about a half hour, and with a fraction of the deaths it took me before. Amazingly, this game has still not lost its appeal. Despite its simplicity when every room is well-practiced, I still come back this game to tackle a level in a speedrun. Earlier today, I loaded up the game just so I could listen to the music while wrapping Christmas presents (the soundtrack, PPPPPP, is available here for $4, by the way). VVVVVV is honestly a tremendous game in a tiny package, and I would recommend it to anyone willing to take it on. If nothing else, the game's regular price is now $5, down from the original $15 when it was first released. To quote someone else (sorry I can't remember who specifically), there's really no reason not to own this game anymore.

Assassin's Creed II
Right then, here's something completely new: I'm about to recommend a game I don't even own. (Yet. Hopefully. Here's my Steam wishlist, by the way. In case you were curious.) A friend started me off playing Assassin's Creed II on his PS3 after I expressed interest in the series, particularly after Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood came out a month or two ago. I'm probably only three hours into playing the game, but I've been completely floored by what I've experienced so far. Without spoiling too much of what I've experienced so far (though why bother avoiding spoilers, I'm already months behind on this one), one of the things I've loved so far is the stealth aspect of the game, something I didn't encounter (properly, anyway) back in that Thief game long ago. Sneaking around is simple, but still tricky to master, in that way that makes you feel like a champion when you finally pull it off. Factor in a pretty involved storyline, fan-freaking-tastic graphics, and a bowl of popcorn (or at least, that's how playing it at my friend's place has gone), and you've got one pretty amazing game, based at least on the three hours I've played of it so far.

In the interest of fairness, I will throw out a couple of disclaimers, seeing that I haven't played this game in its entirity yet. In my first stealth-based mission, which I loved so dearly, it turns out that in order to complete the task (which required me to kill a certain person, sneaking up to them), it turns out that after three attempts to make the kill in perfect stealthful-ness, the proper way to finish the quest is to break cover for the kill, then roll a cutscene in which you declare your vengeance on the town to everyone watching. I'm so happy I spent all that time trying to be noticed just for it to be blown for the sake of a cutscene. I hope that sort of incident (sacrificing normal or desired play to set up a cutscene) doesn't happen often in this game, as that instance left a sour taste in my mouth.

Another minor quibble I have is simply personal; I hate playing sequels to games before I play through the originals. There are exceptions of course, like Left 4 Dead 2 (where the gameplay is pretty much the same as the original) and Team Fortress 2 (where the game experience is way different from the original... how's that for a double standard?), but I couldn't/can't help feeling like I'm missing something by not playing the original. From what I gather from multiple sources though, The original Assassin's Creed got stale rather quickly, and AC2 improved on it tremendously, while AC:Brotherhood maintains the high standards of AC2. That all said, I'd still like to at least play through the original Assassin's Creed, but with the opportunity to play through AC2 presently at my fingertips, I won't hesitate to jump on that. Going by what I've experienced so far, I'd list Assassin's Creed II in my recommendations.

The "Other Recommendations" Lightning Round
The Ball
- Steam link - demo available - JiG Review: I once heard someone describe The Ball as what Portal would be like if it ran on the Unreal engine. I'm not familiar enough with the latter to really be sure, but it's definitely got the puzzling heart that Portal had. (Thanks Thomas!)

Puzzle Dimension - Steam link - demo available - JiG Review: Puzzle Dimension is like a lot of games where you've got to grab some loot and make it to the door, but with the extra twist of levels that play with gravity and other little spacial tricks. Definitely a challenge, but a somehow relaxing one at that.

Magnetis - Steam link - demo available: Simple-yet-hard Dr. Mario-esque puzzle involving connecting magnets to clear blocks. Good fun in solo mode, but I want to try this in multiplayer sometime.

That essentially wraps up my recommendations for this year's Steam sale. Again, I'd suggest rereading last year's list, and also see some of my reviews over the past year for more picks. And as a final reminder, if you'd like to show your appreciation for my helping your game-buying plans, I'm sure there's something you could do to thank me. (That's not too tacky of a way to end off a post, is it? Desperate pleading?) Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wir Wetten, Sie Können Nicht Sehen

Right then, I advise that you start by watching the following video clip. Fair warning, this clip features a Chinese man swearing in English on a German game show.

This is from a show called Wetten, Dass...? The show features members of the public attempting to perform various stunts, ranging from the bizarre to the nerve-wracking, but always difficult. Meanwhile, big-name celebrities come on the show to small talk with the host, and try to bet whether the MOTPs will be successful or not, with a forfeit attached to incorrect guesses. (For example, in the clip above, Jackie Chan incorrectly bet that the girl would be able to break the bricks without breaking an egg in her hand, so he had to perform the task himself. He did it a bit too well, I think.)

The Jackie Chan clip was not my first exposure to the show, although it was one of the first. My first Wetten, Dass moment was a man balancing a stack of Jenga blocks on a pole on his forehead, while his partner proceded to play the game of Jenga on a raised platform, trying to raise the height of the tower from 10 blocks to 15. They succeeded, but with some incredibly tense moments when the man had to stop his partner while he regained balance of everything. Sadly, the clip is no longer online, though I do have it saved on my computer. If you're looking for more ridiculous bets, I'd recommend this one, this one,, and... oh what the heck, this one.

Wetten, Dass...? has been on the air for 29 years now, although only showing six or seven episodes per year (not unlike the previously-reviewed Schlag den Raab). In its history, the show has been riddled with a few controversial moments, but has still stayed strong and popular as ever. At one point in time, the Wikipedia page boasted that the show would regularly attract over 2/3 of all German-speaking viewers (the show airs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), a rating comparable to the finale of M*A*S*H or a Super Bowl, except every other month. To give you an idea of how ridiculously popular the show is, Pope John Paul II offered to appear on the show via a video link. (The offer was declined, on the grounds that it would set the precedent for future celebrities to appear only via video instead of in person.)

For the record, there was a short-lived American version on ABC a couple years ago. It wasn't anything special. Moving on, then...

Obviously, there's a reason why I bring this show up, and here it is. On an episode that aired this weekend, Samuel Koch attempted a bet in which he would jump over four out of five moving cars using special spring-loaded shoes. Dangerous stunts of this nature had been attempted before, but, spoiler warning, never had there been a failure of this nature before. After having cleared the first and third car (and cancelling the second car when he realized he didn't get enough speed), Koch clipped the windshield of the fourth car with his head, which caused him to over-rotate his flip, landing him flat on the ground in no subtle fashion. As far as I know at this point, Koch is still in critical condition. If you care to watch the video of the incident, click here, however, be forewarned that though the accident itself is not graphic, it's still incredibly hard to watch. The accident occurs about halfway into the video.

Whether or not you watch the clip, there's something I really want to point out about this incident. After the accident occurs, the cameras do not return to Koch, except for one zoomed-out split second, which I would assume to be a mistake. The rest of the time that the cameras are rolling (five or six minutes' worth), the shots focus on wide audience shots and celebrity reactions, and the host giving a few final words. The live feed was cut, and a back-up episode was put in its place.

What I really appreciate about this scenario is the deference given to the injured Koch. In a rather un-American fashion, the cameras do not scramble around him to get close-ups of his silent suffering, but stay completely out of the way, and avoid catching a glimpse of him at all costs. I could only imagine that if this were American television, the director would sic the cameramen on the limp body, trying to get shots of his anguish from every angle. Then, we'd be treated to numerous slow-motion replays and once the body was out of the way, the show would continue normally. As an overly-broad example of this, think of most injuries you see during a football game on TV and how they're managed on-camera. I'm really glad that was not how Koch's situation was handled.

Surprisingly, this is actually the second instance of this sort of respect for the injured I've seen on German game shows. (Surprisingly, I watch German game shows.) On an episode of Schlag den Raab from sometime this summer, a BMX bike-racing event saw a number of crashes taking place, between both Stefan and his opponent. However, in one moto, both Stefan and his opponent crashed on the same obstacle, a small bridge of some sort, if I remember right. Stefan's opponent recovered fairly quickly, but Stefan had some rather brutal injuries and was effectively "out" for a few minutes. During this time, while the host's audio continued, the only camera shot shown was a zoomed-out overhead shot of the course, with the emergency crews helping Stefan just on the edge of the screen. No close-up shots were used until Stefan had recovered from his crash a few minutes later. (Replays of the crash would be used later, but with tasteful restraint.)

Koch's accident (and how it was handled) really makes me think about the standards by which our media operates. I can't remember where I heard it, but someone once uttered the phrase "If it bleeds, it leads," in regards to journalism in America. Part of me wants to believe that we have higher standards than that, but yet I know we don't. To a certain extent, I'd be willing to bet that this story wouldn't have made it onto Yahoo! News if Justin Bieber weren't supposed to perform right after Koch's bet (Ta, David at Bother's Bar for the link). It's this sort of incident that makes me wonder if we're doing something wrong with our media. It's rather late now, so I'm not exactly able to wrap up my point how I wanted to, but this incident is something to consider.