Thursday, July 21, 2011

Surveying the Wreckage of a Summer Sale

It's been a week or two since the annual Steam Summer Sale. Surprisingly, I probably didn't buy as many games for myself as I did for others, but I'm okay with that. I think I'm hitting that plateau where unless some fantastic new game comes out, I'm pretty comfortable with the games I do own. Still, I did take the time to try a few new games, and I have the following report to present to you.

One of my earlier purchases of the sale was BIT.TRIP RUNNER, which claims to be "the fastest, most exhilarating music/rhythm-platformer to hit Steam!" Erm, well, I suppose it's a valid claim, but I can't think of other music/rhythm-platformers on Steam, so make of that what you will. While BEAT was a legitimately rhythm-based Pong-esque game, RUNNER takes the form of a constant-motion platformer, where you must time Commander Video's actions to dodge obstacles, break through barriers, and collect gold bars. It just happens to have a backing soundtrack.

Note that that's very much not to say that the music corresponds to the actions you're performing on screen. For one, in order to, say, jump over a hole in the ground, you've got to hit the "jump" button before you get to the hole. As you pass over the hole, you hear the associated note/sound for completing the jump. This is supposed to make you feel like you've passed the obstacle, but instead I couldn't help feeling that the awkward disconnect between the action and the consequence/confirmation made it uncomfortably arhythmic. Add to that the fact that there's even a tiny delay between when you push the button and the action appears on screen, and it's just frustrating to play. I can't help but feel that if I were to play the game with the sound turned off, I'd do better because I wouldn't be tempted to follow the rhythm of the music.

In thinking about how to describe this game, I keep coming back to Mevo and the Grooveriders, a similar music platformer from a few years back. Mevo is played with only two keys (left-shift, right-shift, and a combo of both), but it uses a scoring system similar to a Dance Dance Revolution game, where you're graded on how close you are on hitting the designated beats, gaining or losing health as you go. In RUNNER, if you slip up, you're instantly sent back to the beginning of the level. You're either perfect or you're doing it again. And again. Factor in the arhythm I described above, and this game is just not fun to play. You don't feel encouraged to keep playing, you feel hindered by the difficulty. In all the time I've spent with this game so far, I've yet to beat two levels in a row. I just can't stomach it. On the whole, I just can't recommend BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

I can, however, put up a geeky nod for Vertex Dispenser (demo available), a puzzle... shooter? Puzzle shooter, I guess. The general goal of the game is to conquer the board, a three-dimensional shape composed of a bunch of triangles and squares, with colored vertices. The vertices change colors, depending on what "activated" vertices surround it; a vertex will always be blue, unless there's already another blue vertex next to it, at which point it will become red; a vertex will be red unless there's already a red and blue next to it, at which point it's green, and so on. The rarer the color, the stronger the power-ups you can charge up. You move along the edges of the shapes, trying to break through defenses set up by opponents, trying to dominate the board and eliminate your opponents. It's not just a brainy strategy game, but it's also a fast-paced action game.

There are two complaints I have to file against this game though. At any point in time, you can have upwards of 14 power-ups available to you, each of which are activated by a key on your keyboard. That's way too many to juggle at once, especially when there are also four power-ups per slot to choose from. You need to use a diverse range of power-ups to win a game, but I find myself having to check the laundry list of options every time I want to use one, and by the time I figure out what I want, it's too late. As a result, I usually stick to only two or three power-ups for most of the game, which is a bit of a waste. The other complaint is that I can't seem to find anyone playing multiplayer matches. Or is it only multiplayer with Steam friends, and I happen to lack other friends who play this game? Despite both of these, I'd still give Vertex Dispenser a solid thumbs up.

Lume is a very beautiful point-and-click puzzler, with an artistic style of cardboard characters and settings that make the entire experience feel like an amazing children's TV show (so it must've been a European show). On the downside, some of the puzzles in it are a bit too obscure to solve without any hints (I ended up either brute-forcing or checking a walkthrough for a couple of puzzles). Plus, it's really short. Granted, it's part one of a series, but still, I'd definitely not recommend this at its regular $7 price, but I'd say give it a go if it comes up on sale again. If nothing else, add it to your list of games with good loop music for playing in the background while working on a late-night paper.

Critical Mass (demo available) looked like it should have been an equally geeky puzzle game, considering the game looks like you're attacking a neon Rubik's Cube. Unfortunately, it's just a three-dimensional match-4 game. Your goal is to clear the blocks before the mass reaches "critical mass", AKA an arbitrary time limit irrelevant to the actual size of the mass. I've only gotten the demo, but it seems like there's very little else to this game. I'll pass, thanks.

I've played all of about five minutes of Terraria and I've yet to touch Magicka, though I hear both are quite good. I also picked up Assassin's Creed: Grilled and Greed Corp, but I don't know much about either of those yet.

I also downloaded the demo for But do you want to know where my biggest regret is? I didn't buy Atom Zombie Smasher. With about an hour left in its day for an extra discount in the store, I tried out the demo. I decided not to buy it, because I'm not a huge fan of real-time strategy games. However, in the last couple of days I've found myself coming back to the demo to play its limited four levels over and over again. There's something about the chipper, surf guitar-y theme that makes this game much more lively than other RTS titles, much less zombie titles. Plus, the action is easy to get into, meaning a strategy thicko like me could get sucked in. I've not got that drum and guitar riff looping in my mind, and I tremendously crave this game. I'm seriously regretting not buying this game.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Armor, Artwork, Medicine... What, No Stromboli Stand?

I finished Assassin's Creed 2 this morning with a considerable chunk of sadness. Knowing from what I experienced in playing the first Assassin's Creed, my thoughts for this game started to dwindle as I approached the final stages of the plotline. Nonetheless, I'd still probably throw in a nod for AC2 as a pretty good game, if you're willing to get past a few shortcomings, some of which carry over from the first game. In this post, I'll try to stay light on significant plot spoilers for as long as possible, though I'll definitely have to rant about the ending later.

Assassin's Creed Extra Crispy starts off where Original Recipe leaves off, although assuming the first one "leaves off" anywhere is quite generous considering that the ending was as abrupt as a squirrel catapult. You begin by escaping Abstergo and high-tailing it with Lucy to a warehouse, where you meet the tech-obsessed geek, the English snob, and the Animus 2.0, which doesn't mean much except the game is going to suck a bit less than last time (fewer loading screens, better in-game interface, etc.). Setting up this bit of plot feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, since you'll spend about 98% of your time inside the Animus, only to pop out for one cutscene sequence mid-game and at the very end, with your new partners dropping bits of information to you via audio link probably ten times at most.

Inside the Animus, which, let's face it, is pretty much the game, you take on the role of Ezio Auditore, who is somehow another one of Desmond's ancestors. You begin, perhaps surprisingly, at birth, with a cutscene with quicktime events that somehow teaches you the basics for just about all the commands you need for the rest of the game (top button corresponds to head-type actions, bottom to feet-type actions, left and right to hands). Fast forward to some point in the future (I knew I should've taken notes) where through more instances in late-teen-early-20s Ezio's daily life you learn how to fight, climb buildings, and have sex. (Just kidding! That's only a cutscene, and I think it only happens... twice?) Eventually you discover that your father has been imprisoned, and killed before your eyes, at the hands of some corrupt government officials. So it's up to Ezio to take over his father's role and get revenge on those baddies! Naturally.

I know I mentioned before that my first exposure to Extra Crispy was on a friend's PS3, where I got maybe three to four hours into the game. One of my initial big gripes was how right after getting his first vengeance kill, Ezio launches into this speech about how he's going to avenge his father's (oh, and brother's) death(s). Not at all stealthy, but thankfully, this is one of the rare instances where the veil of stealth is shattered for the sake of the plot. In fact, as I continued through the game, there's quite a lot of semi-legitimate stealth to be had, such as timing your movements to not attract guards' attention, or making kills from a hiding spot. The stealth is also sometimes unbelievable, such as the numerous times I've found myself hanging onto the ledge of a building with a guard inches from my fingertips but still not seeing me. Still, the pleasant flexibility of the "notoriety" system makes this game quite a bit less frustrating than the last game.

The combat in this game still sucks. Just as in Original Recipe, I found myself repeatedly mashing the same two buttons to beat baddies until they were dead. I suppose there was a slight improvement in the combat thanks to the ability to select weapons and armor, which are purchasable from stores, but the general strategy for that always seemed to be "pick the best one, there's no difference in how you wield them". And at that, after a certain point in the game, you discover what's clearly the best armor and weapons in the game, so there's no sense in attempting to upgrade anymore. Actually, more than the combat itself, I should focus more on the wider range of items that can be used in and out of combat, such as smoke bombs, medicines and poisons, and the pistol, which feels like a bit of a cop-out of a weapon, but it comes in handy in certain moments. I kid you not, there's also an option to throw money to cause a distraction. I don't know why I found this ability both hilarious and pleasing.

Speaking of money, the whole economic system is a huge difference between this game and Original Recipe. Once you visit your uncle Mario in Monteriggioni (and yes, he spouts the obligatory "It's a-me, Mario!), you get a treasure chest that collects a portion of the town's income. A large side quest involves purchasing upgrades and buying items in shops to increase Monteriggioni's value (and income). As the town's value grows, the income (delivered to the chest every 20 minutes of play time grows as well. The money system is an interesting addition to the franchise, but it also feels wasted, just like life outside the Animus 2.0. Once you unlock all of the buildings in town, your income increases ridiculously. Once you use that money to buy all the weapons, armor, and paintings you can find, your income increases some more. By the end of the game, I had close to 400,000 Florins (units of currency), but couldn't spend it fast enough, with trips to the doctor costing 50 florins and repairs at the armory costing 400. If you invest the money early in the game, you earn it back too quickly, which unfortunately negates the dilemma of ever having to manage the money in the first place.

Worth mentioning: I really appreciate the amount of detail in the various locations, and how true to life certain parts of the scenery are within the game. When I finally arrived in Venice, I couldn't wait to check out their rendition of the district of San Marco. Unfortunately, that portion wouldn't be unlocked for another two or three chapters of the game, but when I got there, it was serious deja vu. I took so many snapshots of St. Mark's Square, where I actually stood almost three years ago to the day. I went looking for the general location of a geocache I found in Venice three years ago. I found myself on a side mission inside St. Mark's Cathedral, and found my virtual self standing in the exact same spot I sang in three years ago. Of course, not everything's the same, as everything in the game was probably scaled down to maybe 1/8th or 1/10th of the actual size of all these places to make getting from one end of town to the other relatively quicker, but I was so happy to see these details come through here, and to relive those brief but happy memories on that island.

But look at me, picking apart things like the cost of a leather pouch or how to punch people repeatedly. What really needs picked apart is the storyline! I can confidently say that Extra Crispy's storyline is way more varied and interesting than that of Original Recipe's. AC1's "plot" revolved around going to a random district of a city, completing two or three mini-tasks to "gather information" on the assassination target, then doing the assassination. Lather, rinse, and repeat about eight times. In AC2, there's definitely a set chain of events that eventually lead you to each assassination, but you've got way more freedom to take up side missions as you go. Not knowing what's coming next or in what order makes this game way more tolerable... Until the next-to-last chapter of the game, where you have to do nine relatively easy assassinations in a row. That was the first point in the game where I started to feel fatigued from the whole ordeal, but to at least make it to that far in the game (chapter 13 of 14) before I felt this demonstrates that they've done something better with how the plot is handled this time around.

The characters in Extra Crispy also help the general atmosphere of the game. Early on, you befriend Leonardo da Vinci, who helps you out by decoding pages you collect, upgrading your weapons, and providing you with the occasional flying machine adventure. Even if the other names dropped in this game aren't all familiar (Machiavelli and Medici come to mind), they all stick with you, thanks to some well-designed personalities. The cutscenes that illustrate the interactions between Ezio and his allies show you some hilarious and quirky sides of just about everyone, whether based on a real historical figure or not. These characters stick with you way more than the cast of about four people in Original Recipe, who have about as much personality put together as a cinderblock with lipstick. I genuinely want to see Ezio and Leonardo in a sitcom together. One's a blood-thirsty murderer bent on revenge, the other's the wacky inventor guy next door. Ezio and Leo! Ba-da-da-da-da da-na-da-da!

I think I've covered everything non-spoilery I wanted to get to, so now let's discuss some reactions to parts of the game. SPOILERS from here on in, though once again, this game's two years old now, so there's probably not much to spoil.

One of the big reasons I wanted to see more action outside of the Animus was the lone scene in the middle of the game where Desmond gets out, does a bit of an experiment involving the "bleeding effect" in the warehouse, then has that crazy hallucination. You know, the one where he's Altair and chasing that woman through Acre to get to the game's other sex scene? To be quite honest, I was playing through this scene late at night, so to see everything go crazy horror story dark made me freak out a bit. And I loved it. That scene left me wanting to experience more of the Animus's effects on Desmond, because they really hit a strong nerve of both curiosity and fear. I loved that scene, until I wrapped up for the night and realized I had to go to bed with those ghostly horses still running through my head.

Remember how I said I was fine with how the story played out up until chapter 13? Well, that bit of nervousness about how things were going to end up was justified when I hit chapter 14, the final portion of the game. You arrive at the outer walls of the Vatican, and you have to get to the end of a long, narrow corridor to assassinate the pope (as one does). My jaw dropped in horror... This was exactly how the "final" battle in AC1 went. Long corridor, bound to be filled with lots of baddies dropping in, leading to the first of a series of "final" fights. It was irritating then, and to see it coming made it more irritating now. Luckily, this time around it wasn't as frustrating, considering there were way more checkpoints (I don't think the first one had any?) and more ways to kill the enemies along the way than just swordfights. Still, in the end, it was a series of at least three attempts to kill the ultimate baddie (in this case, the pope, natch). It's annoying how predictable this has become.

Which leads me up to the final cutscene, in which Ezio discovers... the truth? That was probably one of the more bizarre bits of footage I've seen in a while, and it once again left the game in a very un-closured state. As the screen goes black, Desmond utters, "What the fuck?" Then roll the credits. Indeed, my brother... What the fuck, indeed. At the very least, there was a small fight sequence outside of the Animus as the credits ran that at least provided an end to this chapter of the Assassin's Creed series, but very much not the series as a whole. It's still an incredibly unsatisfying ending, though it's far better than how you're left off at the end of AC1. Back then, the ending felt like a giant middle finger. Here, it's a fist shaken with great vigor. It's still not entirely pleasant, but at least it's not as insulting as it once was.

Would I go back and finish this game to 100% completion? Probably not, and here's why: At the end of AC1, I claimed I would do so, not realizing that going back and reclaiming all the extra missions actually required you to play through sequences in order, regardless of the fact that you'd already cleared everything. In fact, you'd even drop back in experience and health, meaning any skills you had gained after that point would be gone so you could relive that portion of the game exactly as you had before. This is an incredible turn-off. Here, on the other hand, there's really not much more to go back and claim. Yes, there are the mini-assassination missions, races, and beat-up events, all of which I skipped, plus hundreds of treasure chests and dozens of missing feathers to collect, and they're all readily available for claiming at any point in time without "rewinding". But after the ending I just finished, I'm going to admit that I need some time away from Assassin's Creed. Note that I'm far from giving up on it, I'm downloading Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as we speak. (So... Assassin's Creed... Grilled?) It'll probably sit idly on my computer while I check out some of the other swag I grabbed from the recent Steam Summer Camp Sale. In the meantime, I'm going to bed (review writing time: almost exactly two hours!). Maybe I'll throw some screencaps up in the next couple of days to illustrate some points. Until then, requiescat in pace.

Oh, one more thing... Because it was on sale for something like a buck, I decided to pick up the digital AC2 Prima Official Strategy Guide on Steam as well. I figured it'd be nice to check one out just for the fun of it, plus it came through on some tricky little spots. But the format was absolutely crap. You can tell that this guide was written as a book, then transcribed to a website, when it really should have been transcribed as a PDF. If it requires trial and error to find the help you're looking for, something's seriously not right. When you get to the bottom of a webpage and you see it refer to "the map on the page on the right", but with no map nor any link to any map, you know they put about two seconds of work into the thing. And to think, they'd charge $10 for this piece of crap. So there.