Thursday, January 28, 2010

Final Part of Staycation 2010 (aka the 2nd annual video game-a-thon)

Finally I'm going to ramble a bit about time and how one should spend their time before giving a brief review of the last 2 games on my list.

One thing that has struck me during both the 2009 and 2010 staycations is just how truely long these video games are. Its almost discouraging to think that I spent 5 whole days playing about 6 different games and I didn't 'finish' any of them. If you start to break this out it gets even worse. Each day, I played games between 9-10 hours. Over 5 days this is 45 hours. During the rest of the year I probably will play games a little less than that over 3 months. So I was able to make about 3 months worth of headway into these games in 5 days. If (big if) I got halfway through all 6, that means that I need to be playing only these games over the next 3 months to 'finish' them. Thats pretty staggering in my opinion. I mean how is a person with a job expected to get through these games? The games industry acts like we need to be playing a new release every 2 weeks, I mean how do people do it? Even if I had no job, It would still take tons of time to keep pace with the exhausting release schedule of only the games I actually want to play . . .

In my mind this whole discussion begs the question "What else could I be doing with that 45 hours." I usually come up with a few good ideas, but in the end I decide that I like playing games and that I should spend time doing what I like. Sure, I'd like for the house to be tidier and the cars to be washed, but I also want to sit on the couch for 2 hours and play games.

When it comes to my free time, I think I've gotten to a point where I can easily say "NO" to the sense of duty inside me that constantly insists I should be doing chores or work or learning something. I believe that most of the time that voice is wrong and doing what it tells me will probably make me unhappy. Free time is free, and we live in an era with more of it than at any other point in human history. We also probably do more work for people other than our own families than at any other point in human history. I'd say that makes us a bit more selfish about our free time than our ancestors. At least thats how I feel about it, and right now I'm choosing to play games with my time.

Now on to the rest of my list:
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - I played this on the 360. The Wii version of the game actually gets slightly higher ratings and the 360 version feels like its been squeezed down a bit to accomodate the Wii's less powerful hardware. The cinematics are abrubtly stopped at points, there are long load times to get through the menus, and the controls seem a bit simplified. BTW the menus thing doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize that you keep having to check them to see what moves you can do with your lightsabler "Do I push x+y or x+b?" You have to wait like 7-10 seconds EVERY TIME you enter the menu to check this and because you are constantly unlocking new moves you have to check A LOT. These are just little knocks against the game however, but they do tend to reduce my enjoyment of it overall. I'd say my biggest complaint about this game is the way they implemented the "Force Throw" power. Again this doesn't seem like a big deal, but I want to be able to effortlessly throw rocks at jawas and instead I can't seem to pick up the one that I want, and when I do it goes off in some wierd direction where I didn't intend to throw it. To make matters worse, Its almost like the game encourages you to use this power and then laughs at you as you miss your target like 80% of the time. GAME - "Haha, you'll never get that rock back cause its off the screen. Also, it was the only thing big enough to take out the AT-AT. . . . . Haha!" Its only after you clear those obstacles that you get to enjoy this game. I gradually developed a style of play that minimized the loading and the force throw, and I was able to get into a really well done and engaging Star Wars story. It takes place between Ep3 and Ep4 and tells the story of Darth Vader's secret apprentice. They used motion capture on the actors' faces and it ends up looking really good. (The lead is played by Crashdown from BSG). This might have been the "worst" game I played on the staycation, but it is still a good one. It actually made me want to go back and play the Ep3 game for PS2 because I was a big fan of that one.

Dead Space - This game borrows from a lot of current gen titles and it does it very well. I don't remember the last time that I played a game that was this effortlessly fun. It doesn't really shock you with innovation or surprise you with new styles of gameplay, but everything it does seems so easy to interact with that you don't end up minding at all. The best way I can describe this game is if Bioshock and Resident Evil 4 had a baby in space it would be Dead Space. 3rd person action with spooky space aliens and an interactive mystery story that you uncover as you explore the abandoned SS Ishimura. Its great! One thing to note about this title is that it seems just as long as any other action/adventure game, but the pacing of the game seems really geared toward an adult with a job. You can finish one of the game's chapters in about 60-90 minutes. Thats perfect for someone who just put the kids to bed and wants to play something great in a short period of time. Or someone like me who is probably going to fall asleep at 11:30 whether he likes it or not and can't get into something that takes 79 hours.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Part 2 -Staycation 2010 (aka the 2nd annual video game-a-thon)

So I want to lead off part 2 of this by simply addressing what and why it is that I seem to enjoy video games so much. A lot of people think that to play current gen video games you have to have a long history of playing and enjoying video games. I fit into this category as I've been playing video games for quite some time, and I think that past experience certainly helps explain why it is that I like to play games, but really, games have changed so much over the past 30+ years that playing games from 1979 doesn't really help you enjoy games from 2009.

Most people have had some positive experience with a video game in their life. Maybe they liked PacMan, or Tetris, or Mario, or Bejewelled. These games are easy to like because they are relatively simple and do the most important thing a game can do which is stimulate AND reward multiple sensory inputs at once.

I think games are addictive because they stimulate so many parts of your brain at one time. Sight, Sound, Reaction, Manipulation, Intensification, and Analysis. I think if you think about a game you really liked, it probably stimulated all of these things and you can probably think of more or better ways to describe the way you felt. There was also a very obvious reward for you as you used these 'senses' the way the game wanted you to. Sometimes the reward is as simple as an explosive sound and other times its getting to take a short break before the next level starts. In any case you were making progress and it was fun.

If you were used to playing games from 1979 you will remember that they were mostly based on Sight, Sound, and Reaction. Games have gradually added more elements that require advanced hand eye dexterity and problem solving analysis along with cinematic style storytelling that can even illicit intense emotion. This actually has the effect of delaying your reward. Instead of just eating pellets, you have to learn how to make your character go fishing so you can finish the first chapter of the story. If the actual task you are supposed to learn is too complicated it feels like work and you quit before you get your reward.

I'll say that there is a point in pretty much every game when I feel like this, and thats where my long experience with games kicks in and I do some natural things to analyze what I'm doing in the game to try and make things easier for myself. If you don't have this experience (and are actually interested) here is what I do:

Think about the game as a finite set of rules. The solution to whatever problem I have fits into a small set of things that are possible. What was the last addition to the ruleset before I had this problem? Is there a way that it changes the game in some way I haven't considered yet?

Try everything, but don't try the same thing. Most of the time the solution to my problem isn't more repetitions, but something I haven't tried yet. Trying the same thing too many times in a row is boring and leads to f-bombs and other exclamations.

When you get stuck, use to find walkthroughs and solutions to your problems. Games are very long now, and there will be lots of challenges for you beyond the one that has you stuck. Using a walkthrough instead of losing your marbles is acceptable.

Moving on through my list . . .

Zak and Wiki Barbaro's Treasure - this game is actually called: Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure. Despite its wordy title (lovingly referred to as Zip & Faggy) this is an excellent puzzle solving game hidden in a Japanese style cartoon. The action in the game is point and click style. It reminds me of old PC point and click adventure games like Space Quest, Day of the Tentacle, or Sam & Max. However, rather than making you combine ridiculous items to magically open a sealed door, this one seems a bit more creative with its puzzle solving. "I have to pour the lava in the pit to burn the pole before I dump the water to get the treasure." The beauty of the game is that you just use the Wiimote to point and click your way through these puzzles. Occasionally they make you do some Wiimote push or pull or flick that ends up being mostly amusing and occasionally irritating.

No More Heroes - Hmmm . . . Its hard to explain this game. The best part of this game is the extremely entertaining storytelling style. Its a rare combination of a Japanese produced product that has successfully formatted itself for a North American audience. The main character is essentially a douchbag, 20 something who has a lightsaber and wants to become the #1 contract killer in the country. To do this he has to slice his way through killers 10-1 using the Wiimote buttons to unleash sword attacks and the motion controls to do 'wrestling' moves. Its got an open world feel to it like a Grand Theft Auto game, but the story is complete candy that somehow does not get old. Hilarious one liners, creative use of (a lot of) profanity, and incredible sword mutilations have kept me glued and laughing most of the way through this one. I think they took some big risks 'stylizing' this and in my opinion it totally works. I get it.

Ok well thats all I have time for today. I guess I'll finish up in Part 3

Monday, January 18, 2010

Staycation 2010 (aka the 2nd annual video game-a-thon)

For the 2nd year in a row, I took 3 days off of the week immdiately preceding the start of Laura's spring semester. This gives us a chance to spend some quality time together after the hectic holidays and before the busy back-and-forthing to Waco begins for her anew.

Last year when we chose to do this we were neck deep into our remodeling fiasco and we needed some time to escape and not spend money. We decided that since we own an absurd amount of video games (that we BOTH like to play) that we should dedicate our 'Staycation' to playing games that we already own that we've negelected since purchasing.

Because last year we had no kitchen (not exaggerating) we bought a bunch of food items that could be prepared in the toaster. -Not even trips for food will keep us from our lazing about at home- We kept the 'toaster trash' tradition alive this year and our menu included such classics as pizza pockets, bagel bites, taquitos, snickers ice cream bars, and a grocery store party tray sampler with cheese cubes and salami.

So the staycation came and video games were again the primary focus. We also sprinkled in some massages and a Dallas Stars game just for kicks.

Here are the rules for the gaming:
-We both make a list of all the games we own that we want to play. The list should be longer than what you actually have time for
-We rate the games on our list to determine which games we'd most like to play
-Once prioritized we evaluate what systems the games are on and then set up 2 different TVs with the consoles least likely to conflict with each other for game time
-When play on one of the games begins we set a 90 minute timer. When the timer goes off you finish up what you are doing in the game and switch games.

The switching means that we get to play different games. Seeing as how the point of this is to play games we've bought but have neglected, this method lets us dust off the most neglect possible from a high variety of games.

There were probably about 25 games on my list with priority ratings from 1 to 5. The 6 high (5) priority games this year were:
-Chrono Trigger (played on a PC SNES emulator)
-Knights of the Old Republic (XBOX)
-Zak and Wiki Barbaro's Treasure (Wii)
-No More Heroes (Wii)
-Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (360)
-Dead Space (360)

Lower priority games I also played were
Beautiful Katamari (360)
Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)
De Blob (Wii)

I didn't "finish" any of these games and I plan to continue playing them all to completion as they are all good games. I've put about 7-12 hours into each one now and here are my 'halfway point' impressions.

Chrono Trigger - I've started this game a handful of times but wanted to really get into it this time. Its a Japanese style RPG, and is often considered to be in the top 3 all time in that category. This is the oldest game I played as it came out in 1995. The game is instantly entertaining and is full of quirky and likeable characters that belong in a young adult fiction story. For its time the game introduced some really different interactive story telling techniques and will challenge even hard core movie going adults to pay attention as its complex time travel story unfolds. The 'boss' battles are frequent and they keep you feeling that sense of accomplishment that encourages you to explore and investigate the different stages of the story. The other thing that others always talk about with this game are the combination abilities that your characters can activate together. I'll agree with the screaming masses that the combos are really fun and should be in more RPGs.

Knights of the Old Republic - Bioware's Star Wars classic that takes place 1000 years before Episode 1 has been on my list of "must plays" for quite some time. This game was released in 2003, and while I've tried to play it on the PC, its really the original XBOX version that gets most of the praise. I finally borrowed a copy of the original XBOX version for the staycation and dove in. This is also an RPG but not of the Japanese variety. The story telling is great. The game really captures the feel of the Star Wars universe and does it well. The gameplay itself is solid although the maps feel too small after playing next-gen games. This results in the exploration elements feeling pretty easy. The combat flows like a real time or action RPG, but I'm constantly stopping it to switch to my various characters and activate their abilities. This can break up the feel of the game a bit. With around 12 hours in, I'm not really even halfway through, so I need to give this one some more playtime, but I'm enjoying it mostly for the story at this point.

Ok, look out for Staycation part 2 coming soon. . . .

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