Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mirror's Edge and Valkyria Chronicles

Okay, so a couple months ago I reviewed the demo for these games and pretty much said that they were amazing and that I was totally excited to play them when they came out. Well, at this point, I have now played through both of them and I thought I'd put my thoughts on them down now. Yes, I'm kinda sorta reviewing these games, okay?

So, let's start with Mirror's Edge. Now, a lot of reviews/people said that while the game demoes really well, the finished product leaves something to be desired. Typically, they then compare it to Portal and then dismiss it. Usually they complain that it's hard somewhere in there too. Well, I did not have that experience at all.

What I loved about the demo was just the way the game makes you feel when you're moving forward. I don't think I've ever played a game where the biggest reward comes just for continuously moving forward. It's kind of funny, but the only reward for moving forward is that you get to keep moving forward, only faster. But that's reward enough, because moving forward feels like freedom in this game. So does flying through the air with your hands waving. Also sliding down a rail or underneath a platform. Or running along a wall. And, admittedly, you could do all those things in the demo, so maybe the fact that there were no new rewards made people sad. But it didn't bother me, because the feeling of doing any or all of those things was good enough. I just wanted to keep doing them.

And so that was my experience with the game. I don't care that the scenery doesn't change overly much (but it does change a lot more than people give it credit for, keeping in mind that the setting is a city so we've got: rooftops, buildings, ground floor, below ground, boats, and trains). I just want to keep running.

One thing that surprised me in the game is that you spend most of the game getting chased. You're not just getting from place to place as fast as you can because it feels good. You're doing it because there's a bunch of police officers following you who kind of want to shoot you. I don't mind that, but it definitely added a level of pressure that I hadn't fully expected. I liked it.

Also, the Flash animation cut scenes were stupid. No argument there. I would definitely have preferred if they just did everything with the game engine. Totally unrelated, but the concept art that you unlock as you play through the game is actually kind of interesting.

Oh, and one last thing. The game is not hard you pussy reviewers everywhere. I mean, seriously, what's wrong with you guys? I'm really not all that good at video games, and this game is not that hard. I'm sorry that it sometimes takes more than one try to do a section. This is a platformer and someone decided to make it require very precise timing: which is absolutely their perogative. It's not the end of the world. Also, considering the liberal use of check points, you're really not going to be losing all that much when you fall 10 stories and listen to your bones crunch when you hit the ground. Just try again and don't screw up and don't blame the game when you do. The controls are tight so every time you screw up, it's because you screwed up. Get better.

Alright, onto Valkyria Chronicles. Now, when I played the demo I said that it was one of the most beautiful games I had ever played and it managed to follow the graphics up with one of the deepest and most interesting turn-based strategy RPG systems ever devised. So, now I've played the full game. Have my thoughts changed? No, but maybe a little yes too.

It's still an incredibly beautiful game. No one can take that away. But, after over 40 hours, I'm a little desensitized to it. I almost wish I wasn't, but I am. Of course, the only real end result of that is that all other games just won't look as good because I've spent too much time looking at this game. Still, I can't enjoy the graphics like I once did.

The story was nice. Serviceable, I guess. I think I prefer the Fire Emblem story and world, though. I will say that I liked that the main bad guy had some interesting good qualities about him. In a world full of racism and bigotry, he ruled his troops as a meritocracy. The good guys couldn't say that. Their army promoted people for their bloodlines rather than their performance in battle and that's one of the main reasons why the good guys almost lose. So, I thought that was cool. Of course, he was cruel and evil and as soon as someone disappointed him he cast them aside, but still, anyone could ascend his ranks and take command (and if people made poor strategic decisions in the name of bigotry, he punished them for that too).

So, let's talk about the strategy. It's very hard to balance this type of game and playing through it, I found out that it could have been done better. At the start of the game, the balance is really very close to right. Scouts have a huge amount of movement and vision, but they're not very accurate and they don't have much life. You can make good use of them by exploring and finding ambushes, as well as using their grenades to knock enemies away from cover, but if they run into a group of enemies, they'll get torn apart really fast.

Machine gunners are a little over-powered at the start, but their low movement stops you from utilizing them as much as you'd like. They're great for defending because they can destroy anything that gets in their range, but they're also great for attacking because they can withstand some serious damage and then deal it right back.

A typical attack on a fortified position at the start of the game involves getting a scout to scope it out and lob a grenade to get everyone exposed. The scout then runs a safe distance away and gets behind cover. This allows the scout to shoot any targets that move on the enemy's turn while hopefully keeping her safe (all my units are girls). After the scout's done her work, I send a shock trooper (machine gunner) in to mow down all these people who no longer have cover protecting them. Without the cover, the attack is almost certainly overwhelming and most of the targets die (this might take a couple movement turns).

For heavily fortified positions, or those that have tanks guarding them, you need tanks and lancers as well. At the start of the game, both these units are not very accurate so you can't use their most powerful weapons against ground units. Tanks still have mortars and machine guns, but the lancers have no way of fighting against ground units. Early in the game, they're so wildly inaccurate that you can't even use them to try to take out any cover that the enemy units are hiding behind (same with the tank's main gun).

So, if there's a heavily fortifed position, you need to have your tank come in and literally run over the cover the bad guys are hiding behind and then attack the opposing tank. With your tank in the middle of the action, you can send your ground troops in and let them hide behind the tank when they're not in use (it works quite well). But, for taking out the enemy tank, you just have to grin and bear it as you send your explosive weapons into it until it gets taken down.

You can also bring engineers along to keep your tanks safe and to rebuild cover after you have won a fortified position. Occasionally, you also want to bring in snipers, but early in the game they're not quite accurate enough to get the head shots required to make them effective.

In short, the early game strategy is all about slow, patient advances on an enemy position. Going in without proper support will result in untimely death. You have to command and control your units as a team and when you use them properly, you will kick a lot of ass. But, if you don't, you'll get in trouble very quickly.

But, late in the game, things change. Scouts get strong enough to do decent damage. Even worse, they get accurate enough to be able to land consist head shots out of the range of the machine gun units. So, suddenly, scouts aren't afraid of shock troopers anymore. Even more amazingly, they get grenage launchers so that they don't even have to get close to dangerous fortified positions to destroy all the cover.

The machine gunners become ridiculously strong and can pretty much just walk into the middle of a firefight without too much fear. Plus they get flamethrowers that can essentially one shot anyone who isn't behind cover. And they sweep with it, so they can often get multiple guys with a single movement point (crazy!).

The lancers end up getting so much defense that tanks can't defend themselves from them. Tanks end up needing shock trooper escorts to protect the tank's rear vulnerable spot, otherwise a lancer can literally walk around a tank (while taking machine gun fire the whole time), ready her lance and drop the tank in one shot.

Snipers end up getting so much range and accuracy that, on wide open levels, you can actually just have a sniper near the middle take down any unit, anywhere on the map, with a guaranteed head shot. A sniper plus an engineer to renew her supply of rounds can de-fang even the worst attack/group of reinforcements (but guys behind cover remain relatively safe).

In short, the strategy slowly evolves and becomes very different. A single scout can often stage a decent attack on a fortified area, where before you needed at least a scout and shock trooper. Tanks go from being the key unit to breaking through the enemy defenses to a liability that you have to expend effort to protect (on the other hand, they get really accurate as well and you can use them for some pretty cool stuff as well, but you still have to protect them). Shock troopers, while still very powerful, soon find that they don't have as much of a role as they once had. Lancers either eat damage and take down tanks in the way or they remove the enemy's cover or, in a pinch, they become accurate enough to fight against ground troops.

And, well, the early strategy is really cool and fun, but that later stuff is a little bit less balanced. I know it's hard, but it did lose a little bit there at the end and it probably could have been avoided. Essentially, the problem was that I realized that if I could be accurate enough to get head shots whenever I wanted, then I could rule the world (so I focused all my research on accuracy). So, maybe I should have been purposely stupid and not done that so that the game would stay more balanced. But that kind of defeats the purpose.

But aside from the strategy breaking down at the end, it really was a very, very good game. I'm still totally impressed and I have to say that I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the genre reacts to this game. Because, in all honesty, they have to. I really believe that this gameplay is so much better than the typical grid set up that some of the other strategy RPG game makers have to at least consider stealing some of these ideas for their own games. They have to.

Oh, lastly, in case you're curious, Persona 4 came out at the end of last year and I am still trying to reclaim my life. It's hard on all of us.

Well, that is all.


Saturday, February 21, 2009


Okay, so we're two episodes into Joss Whedon's new project. Now, before I saw anything except commercials this is what I was thinking: "Okay, it doesn't look very good, but it's Joss Whedon's new baby and so I should give it a chance...". Then I saw the first episode and I found another reason to give it a chance. It has Helo from Battlestar Galactica. Oh, and Badger get's to play a cop, that's cool too (I think he actually fits as annoying cop better than a gutter prince anyways).

Otherwise, there's just not very much to like about the show. And that's my reaction after the second episode, which was a fair bit better than the first. At the moment, my main problem is the cast, I think. Now, I'll be honest. When I was watching/obsessing over Firefly, it was not because of the girls. I had not yet fallen in love with River, Inara is hot but unattainable, even in my imagination, Zoe is married and kinda scary, and, okay fine, I did have a moderate crush on Kaillie. So, I'm not holding my ambivalence about Eliza Dushku against the show (read as: I don't really think she's hot).

No, my problem is with the guys of the show. For example, Firefly had Alan Tudyk playing Wash. Dollhouse has some dude with messy, uncut blonde hair playing Topher, the tech geek. They have similar jobs: when something goes wrong, they tell people that everything's gone wrong, usually in a humorous, Whedon-esque way. When Alan Tudyk does this, it's funny. Not so much with the other guy. In fact, I'm already at the point that whenever he says anything, I imagine how Alan Tudyk would deliver it, and then I like it. If I didn't do this, then I don't think I would realize that this show actually does contain the sarcastic comic relief that Joss fills his scripts with.

On the other hand, I do like Helo's character, who doesn't really have an equivalent in Firefly. Which is okay, by the way, I don't need Firefly 2.0 (that is a blatant lie, in case you couldn't tell, but please bear with me). If the show lasts a while, I think his character could be fun. I'm curious to see him meet Echo. I'm also curious to see him interact with his neighbor, who seems to be a variation on Peter Parker's neighbor in Spiderman 2 (don't ask me why that makes me like her, just trust me that it's a good thing and go watch Spiderman 2 sometime to remind yourself why you like it, because, trust me you do). My immediate concern with his character is that I can't see that much future for him in the show, unless he gets recruited by the Dollhouse (which would be interesting too, now that I think about it). But, yeah, I like him and so I have to give him credit for that.

Then there's Alpha. Alpha is someone that Firefly actually needed, so I like that he exists here. The big evil corporation/government just doesn't work as well as the crazy dude who can cut a person up with surgical precision in 8 seconds (of course, Firefly had a culture of people like that, but they were only relevant as this Western's savages and in the big screen adaptation). And I like that he has a plan for Echo and that he's clearly trying to pull her consciousness out (we all know that hunter dude didn't know just what was in the poisoned water). He's a good bad guy and I look forward to looking for his finger print on everything that goes wrong.

And, lastly, there's her handler. In most ways, he's the typical cliched newcomer character getting acquainted with this world for the benefit of viewers everywhere. This means he doesn't have to actually be a main character, although it currently seems like he is (although I wouldn't mind Helo taking his job someday, just throwing that out there). Personally, I'm withholding judgement. I feel like we're going to keep getting background on him and maybe he will get a story of his own.

But, compare them to the guys of Firefly.

For one, Firefly had Nathan Fillion playing Malcolm Reynolds. Not only does this show not have Nathan Fillion playing Mal, it doesn't have Nathan Fillion playing anyone, nor does it have anyone playing a character even remotely as awesome as Mal. Mal and his relationship with Serenity was the core of Firefly. That was established in the opening theme for goodness sake. The core of Dollhouse is some variation on the question: What makes a person unique and can it be given to or taken from us? And, I feel like this show is already suffering from the lack of a real core. It already feels directionless and it's only just started. With Firefly, there was a very clear direction for the show: Mal's desire to believe that he's free.

Plus Firefly had Shepherd Book. Who doesn't like a wise, world-weary priest that can kick some major ass? Even Simon as the obnoxious, uptight prick was cool. And of course there was Jayne as the stupid muscle, but oh, so much more. I guess his counterpart is the head of security guy that I recognize as the annoying brother in Journeyman (and I hold that against him, by the way).

So, in summary, none of the guys provide a rock upon which to build the TV show. But, technically that should be okay, since Eliza Dushku is the star. Except, at this point, she's almost the hardest character to build the show upon. Unless she's going to start pulling her pasts forward a lot (which would mean essentially breaking the basic concept of the show relatively early on), then Eliza doesn't have a regular character on the show. She has a new role every week. Her character arcs are necessarily one episode long, because she starts back at the blank slate (Tabula Rasa if you prefer) next week.

To put it in perspective, this means that Echo essentially cannot be much more complicated than Homer Simpson without breaking the framework of the show. Or, maybe another way to think of this would be if you imagined Firefly's main character was River and it all took place prior to when Simon helped her escape from the evil dungeon place (and none of the other characters are around, except for a bored, drugged Alan Tudyk manning the controls prior to quitting his day job and taking up piloting for fun and profit).

So, Joss is either going to break the show and let her continue carrying stuff forward, or he's not going to build the show upon Echo. I'll let him choose. I don't know what the right answer is, but he's already made the decision and I'll just have to wait and find out what it is.

Okay, so is there anything in particular that I like about the show? Well, I actually kind of like that core question, but I don't really like that it seems as though Joss feels like he has to break the framework of the show in order to explore that core question. The whole idea of the show is that you can program people to be anything you want them to be. I'd like to see someone pay a lot of money and find out that their perfect person is really just like the person they left. Or, even better, that their perfect person just left them (no refunds baby, you should have known). I think it'd be cool to have scenes of the tech guy at work, pulling memories and experiences to build the person who's perfect for the task at hand.

In short, I want to see Joss play with this idea of programming people. I'm fine with him slowly working towards that programming sneaking into the default personality (or even the experiences they're supposed to have forgotten), but that shouldn't be the core exploration strategy. Right now, we're supposed to believe that it's a glitch, albeit, a glitch that's already happened once and is slowly starting to happen again.

So, yeah, I'm not going to give up on the show, it does have Joss and Helo and Badger, which I guess is good enough for now. And it still has hope, that's for sure. And, thankfully, episode two wasn't quite as ridiculously full of red of episode one, I certainly appreciate that.

That is all.