Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Yesterday's Worlds #1 : Gauls, Gates, and Bards

Welcome to the latest installment in my recently renamed game collection playthrough, Yesterday's Worlds.

Over the years I've collected a lot of games, and I've always had a particularly soft spot for the 6th generation titles - those from the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube systems. I can't help but look back at this time as a Golden Age of gaming - systems powerful enough to create detailed, immersive experiences, within an industry full of developers and publishers still willing to take risks on new gaming concepts and having the financial means to produce them on a major scale. History proved that, financially, this was not a viable market model, one that became even riskier as more advanced consoles required even larger investments for development.

So, as the 8th generation dawns, I will chronicle some of these fading treasures...along with some that should probably have been rightfully forgotten!

(A note: Previous entries in this series were titled "Back to the Past". The information in the parenthesis are Developer/Publisher/Year of Release.)

Asterix & Obelix Kick Buttix - (Etranges Libellules/Atari/2004) Not played before, buy demoed.

The fact that this game was ever released in the US still amazes me. (As an interesting side note, the full title doesn't appear in the game, just "Asterix & Obelix".) The Asterix comics are a big deal in France (where they've made movies from them as well), but they were never anything that caught on here. The only reason I know of Asterix is my mom was a big fan of them in the 70's and I read the comic books as a child (and by "books", I mean things that would be called graphic novels today). She was no doubt attracted to the historical humor in them and I found them fun to read too. But whatever charm the comics had, this game does not. It's basically a standard 3-D platformer, like a Spyro game, with characters from the books. Granted, they did an excellent job of animating the comics, but it doesn't mean the game is fun to play. You spend all your time beating up Roman soldiers and collecting their helmets. It got old real quick.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance - (Snowblind Studios/Vivendi Universal/2001) Already played and finished!

When magazines make lists of the best co-op games of all-time, this one always makes the cut. I played through it with my brother and it was a truly glorious experience. It's a great D&D RPG game that's perfectly balanced and never gets repetitive. I'd play this game again in a heartbeat! It's a shame that the sequel wasn't as good.

The Bard's Tale - (InXile Entertainment/InXile Entertainment/2005) Not played before.

It's ironic to have this game immediately follow Dark Alliance, because everything it was, The Bard's Tale isn't. Yes, it's funny, when its AI creatures aren't beating the crap out of you. Yes, it's got good music (Tommy Tallarico, the man who is now behind the Videogame Live concerts worked on it), but the camera angle is terrible - nearly directly overhead. Yes, it has some serious voice talent from Cary Elwes and Tony Jay, but for a game that was 5 years into the PS2's life cycle, it looks like ass! With my umpteenth death, and the Narrator saying "Thus endth the Bard's Tale", it did.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rethinking and Renaming

The process for coming up with names for things fall into two categories - either the idea just falls out of your head without any effort, or your brain cells form a committee and debate until the pigs come home (they stay out much later than cows). Currently, I'm watching to catch sight of the first little piggy foot coming down the lane while the sky lightens in the east over the sleeping cows.

Because I can't think of what I want to rename this project of mine.

"Back to the Past" seemed good at first, but it doesn't really work. I suppose I took the idea from the old "Back to the Future" movie title, but it worked because of the nonsensical juxtaposition of the words "Back" and "Future". "Back" and "Past" go together just fine. So, I'm going to try "brain jamming" here and see what else I can come up with.

"Retro Gaming Rampage" - This one is a take-off on "Retro City Rampage", a game I keep seeing mentioned on websites lately. I haven't played it yet, so I don't feel any real affinity for the title. It just sounds sort of cool, but the speed I'm playing games at can't be called a "rampage". Plus, my gaming isn't truly "retro". I think I'd need to be in SNES or NES days for that.

"The Wowbagger Project" - I've talked about this name before, taking a reference from one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams. Wowbagger was the alien that had dedicated his immortal existence to insulting every creature in the universe - in alphabetical order. Since I'm planning on playing every game in my collection in that sequence, it has some merit.

"The PS2 Atoz Project" - I rather like this one. In one of my unfinished blogs, I talked about an old Star Trek Original series episode where Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a doomed planet and find that all the citizens have fled (ie, teleported) into the numerous worlds kept cataloged by the master "librarian", Mr. Atoz. This was probably an analogy to people getting "lost in books" and the "importance of libraries" (or my interpretation anyway), and the librarian's name was just "A" to "Z" made into a name, but it came back to me in this day and age for a different reason. The books/worlds in the show were shiny metal discs, very similar in look to our present day CD's and DVD's. But mostly it was this feeling of being able to enter another world just by loading up one these discs. In many ways that's what I think of when I boot up a game - that I'm stepping into a different reality, bounded in ours within the thinness of a DVD.

The title of that episode was "All Our Yesterdays", and it seems appropriate that I rechristen this blog series as "Yesterday's Worlds".

Oh look, here come the little swine now.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Back to the Past #3 - Area 51 and Armored Core 2

Area-51 (Midway Austin/Midway/2005) - Played before, but decided to give it another try.

I remember when this game was released. Who could miss it? Midway spared little expense in plastering ads in magazines and setting up looping video clips in Gamestop. According to my blog, I first played it about 5 years ago and wasn't overly impressed. Part of that was probably due to the poor setup I had for playing PS2 games then, but I suspect it also had something to do with my general dislike for playing FPS games with a controller. With the exception of Halo, I don't think I've ever played an FPS that wouldn't have been better with a mouse and keyboard. But when the only way to play a game is on console, you just have to bite the (haha) bullet and pick up a gamepad. As it turned out, I rather liked the control scheme on the PS2 controller and had little trouble scoring kills without spraying ammo around like a killer lawn sprinkler.

On replaying Area-51, I found it to be surprisingly fun...for awhile at least. It's a very competent shooter where the guns are fun to shoot, bad guys fall down or explode on cue, and the environments are varied enough that you don't feel like you're always running down the same corridor. There's even a couple of hovering UFO's, things you'd expect to find in Area-51.

I'll admit that I have no idea what the story is supposed to be about. Something about me being part of a "Hazmat" Delta team (which means we have guns instead of mops) responding to an incident at Area-51 which caused the first responders to mutate into creatures (who still know how to carry and fire guns, by the way), and finding some Illuminati commandos trying to take over the place to use the alien technology for their own nefarious purposes, and a crazy scientist that's trying to find a link between humans and aliens, and is using my character to study the effects of this alien virus, and...well, you get the idea. Basically it boils down to the usual - shoot everything that moves because it will kill you if you don't.

There were times I felt I was just playing an upgraded version of Doom - find the door, find the key for the door, go back to the door, open the door, hit a switch - but the action was broken up into small chunks with cutscenes which kept it from getting too repetitive, oddly enough. The other thing that made it somewhat unique is that after you get infected by the alien virus you can turn into a mutant yourself, which basically allows you to go into a rampage mode. In this mode you can take out enemies with a single swipe of your claw instead of using a bunch of bullets. There was one room where I realized that this was the only way to clear out the place, having died multiple times using just firearms and grenades.

You do have to wonder about the wisdom of them picking David Duchovny to do the main character voice acting. Yeah, on the one hand it adds all sorts of geek points because he was Fox Mulder on the X-Files and this is a game about aliens. But on the other, somewhat heavier hand, you're playing as a special ops soldier, a one-man killing machine of mutants and ET's alike. If I were casting a movie, Mr. Duchovny would not be on my interview list. He has a soft spoken, almost melancholy voice that most reviewers seemed to just write off as his being uninterested in the part, when in reality he just wasn't the right voice for the job. They would have done much better getting Michael Biehn (Hicks from Aliens). He can at least sound like a soldier.

I actually thought I'd finish Area-51, but I didn't count on the difficulty increasing so quickly! When I reached a room where I kept dying over and over again, I thought I might be near the end. However, after checking Gamefaqs, I found I was only slightly over half way through and it would only get worse from there. Truly a shame since this is a fun game up until it gets so frustrating.

I know publishers don't care about how much a gamer sees of a game - they already have your money from the initial purchase and don't get any more whether or not you finish it. But I do feel for the designers of the later levels. So much of their work will go unseen by gamers because they (like me) were unable to make it that far. It's times like this that more games should have an invincible God Mode just so the whole game can be experienced. (I used a mode like this for an old PS1 game, Fear Effect, and it was the only way I would have made it to the ending.) At this point, I feel like I've got only half a game, the other half being kept behind a wall I cannot climb, a wall to just beat my head against until I get a headache and move on.

Armored Core 2 (From Software/Agetec Inc./2000) - New.

Some of the games in my collection were purchased with little or no real understanding of the franchise from which they came or the circumstances surrounding their release. Armored Core 2 is a perfect example.

Had I known this was a PS2 launch title, I would have checked it out during my 7 day Gamestop trial period and promptly returned it. The developer, From Software, was apparently resistant to even the most basic improvements in controller interfaces and as a result I'd hazard to guess this may be the only PS2 title that exclusively uses the directional buttons for movement. I can understand that layout for a PS1 title as the thumbsticks on the DualShock were not part of the original controller design, but the PS2 shipped with the DualShock 2!

Beyond the primitive control scheme, this is a series aimed at only the serious Otaku-types. The level of customization is mind numbing! This game is a casual game experience in the same way brain surgery is a minor medical procedure. Needless to say, this one went back into the case and onto the shelf again.

Other things: As I progress through my collection of 6th generation gems, I've decided to go a bit more retro and start using a real DualShock 2 controller. Yep, wires and all. While Logitech made a very fine wireless controller, the thumbsticks on it are not the same size and height as the Sony unit. This gives a slightly looser feel to movement and the R3/L3 buttons react differently, as well. And there is the issue of rumble. On wireless controllers, you often want to turn it off as it uses up the batteries faster and it's easy to accidentally deactivate it as the toggle button for it is just north of the Select button. However, rumble can be very important to some games - something like Rez makes it an integral part of the gameplay.

In a way, I wish I still had my old 27" Sony tube TV to play on (it was so cutting edge for it's day!), but I'll admit that there is a line I'm not willing to cross. The output of the PS2, even with component cables, may not be perfect on an LCD TV, but those old TV's were literal monsters; the one I had weighed nearly 100 pounds! For the most part, the PS2 graphics hold up well on 1080p screens with an occasional interlace issue cropping up. And I can't deny that playing on something that's nearly an equivalent of a 32" standard size TV screen is nothing short of glorious!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Back to the Past #2 - Arc the Lad

Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits (Cattle Call/Sony/2003) - New.

This is one of those games that I would never had started playing if I wasn't going through my collection alphabetically. What kind of name is "Arc" for an RPG character? And could there be a more archaic term than "Lad"? Honestly, I don't know what even possessed me to buy this game in the first place. It must have been during one of my Gamestop sweeps, probably during a B2G1F sale as a filler. I know I never specifically looked for this one.

But I should have.While not a classic, this one surprised me in a number of ways.

You alternately play as one of two sons (neither of which are named "Arc" or are called "Lad", so I still have no idea how the title works into the game) who were the product of a union between a human female and a male creature from a race called the Deimos. The "normal" son, Khrag, is determined to protect the humans from the Deimos monsters. The other son, Darc, didn't turn out entirely Deimos-like and is having a very tough time being accepted by anybody in the Deimos community. Of course, neither knows about the other. You can just see the brother-vs-brother battle brewing here!

On the good side, this game is building a very interesting story with characters you can care about in two entirely different environments. Battles in the game (it's a turn-based strategy design) use a unique system of zones of movement without grids, so you feel like you can move anywhere on the battlefield within your movement allowance. The fights I've had in the first two chapters have been challenging, but not punishing - something I appreciate, especially since there's no difficulty setting. And the "wandering" monsters have had some really wacky designs - gelatinous blobs with a single eyeball, eerie looking gnome/dwarf creatures, walking mushrooms with jack-o-lantern mouths, and very nimble rat/kangaroos. The monster designers were much more creative than the character designers - most of the two-legged models move very stiffly.

However, you can also see where this game suffered from Japanese-to-English localization. Some of the character names don't seem to fit - the leader of the local garrison is Lloyd, the guy in charge of the mining operation is Banjo - a bit out of place with other characters who have "exotic" names like Zev and Nafia. The voice acting isn't too bad overall, but there are a couple of characters I could gladly throttle. The worst part is during the battles. When your character or one of your teammates attacks (or defends) he/she says something that the programmers probably thought was clever. Being constantly repeated just makes it annoying. When they cast magic (the only way to do serious damage), there's a whole extra animation it goes through that gets old too with it's own grating sound bite. And why does Darc sound like Clint Eastwood with a sore throat?!

Overall, this Arc the Lad (there were two others for the PS1 and another for the PS2) was an enjoyable experience, but I'm afraid that I just can't handle the voice acting...or that irritating jungle kid. Time to move on.