Batman Arkham Origins

I struggle to call this a review – it is at best a biased opinion and at worst a rant about everything that is wrong with video games as a modern media. I started complaining on Twitter and I think people were getting annoyed, so I’ll write it out more long form here.

Disclaimer: I have not yet finished. I may never finish. Frankly, the amount of gameplay I’ve gone through so far to get mere percentage points of completion is ridiculous. Congrats for making a long game, and given the AAA pricetag, probably for the better. Fortunately, I received the game packaged with a new GPU I bought for rendering (okay, and gaming, you caught me) and I say fortunately because I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. I would have waited several years and then hesitated about pulling the trigger when it’s a $10 Steam sale like I did with the first two games.

But First, Let’s Do This…

This is the main catchphrase of all the missions. Everything seems so simple and then it folds inwards, adding more new sidetracks at every turn. Some of these are big things, major missions and events to deal with (you could argue that every mission is merely a distraction from the ultimate game arch) but then there are the things that I wonder about, the things that feel placed there merely to add time or make us feel like we did more. Conveniently, everything that pops up is at the other end of town. This would be no problem as we’ve introduced the Batjet fast travel to get around… two open zones. Oh. Right. You need to do these other little side annoyances to unlock the other zones for fast travel use. You can run around everywhere freely (which turns into a sloppy Spider-Man wannabe repetitive cable swinging action if you want any speed) but you have to do work to get to use the jet. And by work I mean:

Henchmen #1-5, Again and Again

This was my main complaint with the first two games. I can see how the melee brawling was praised in the first game for it’s fluid action and dynamic use of takedowns based on where you and the enemies were relative to each other. Some of the fights still do feel really satisfying. Most, however, do not. It’s a lot of “Go here, Batman, but look out for those goons guarding the door!” over and over. Same mob of guys, same button mashing, same drop in interest. Everywhere you go there’s just a convenient group of baddies waiting for you. I realize that’s what the game is, but I feel like it’s detracting from what the game could – nay, should be.

Boss fights are similar: a blend of quick time events, button mashing and quick time events that require you to button mash. Bad guys make ludicrous taunts the whole time and you prove them wrong provided you hit the dodge button quick enough every time it pops up. At best they’re tedious, at worst they’re inducing carpal tunnel syndrome into my right thumb.

Choose A or A

I can’t figure this one out. It’s not really a game that’s supposed to have choice, but it’s free roam. But the levels are linear. But there’s a few different upgrade trees you can take advantage of. But it won’t let you advance the plot unless you do everything their specified way. But they reward you for doing those things in a variety of ways.

For example, there’s a laptop on a rooftop I needed to hack or access or whatever and beating up the same baddies seemed trite so I opted to sneak around carefully and just do it with them still alive and unaware. Masterfully get to the laptop and nothing. It won’t allow me to access it. So, I sneak back over to each guy and silently take them out one by one. Now I can access the laptop. Why did I have to break everyone’s legs to get that to work? I opted for the sneaky-sneak bonuses on the upgrades tree and they won’t even let me finish the objective being completely sneaky. I literally have no other choice but to go through the human mob roadblocks at every location.

There’s more meta-choice problems too. I’m on Penguin’s ship and some Anarky fellow hacks the TV screens with a message for me (how he knows I’m there or accomplishes this is never mentioned) about how he’s set up a bomb and it’s my choice to let it go off and kill innocents or disarm it. He actually says in the dialogue that my choice will affect how he treats me in the future. “Okay, cool” I thought “This could be a novel thing: getting on certain villains’ good sides” thinking that it would affect the later game. So I ignore the bomb and redirect my compass to the more main mission. The timer ticks away but I’ve chosen to ignore it. It clicks down to zero and… I’ve failed the mission. I have to repeat it from the checkpoint. Wait, what? So I can choose to disarm it or… disarm it. Great. And guess who was waiting for me at the bomb location. Henchmen #1-5.

Batman the Merciful Arm Breaker

This is bigger than just this game. Batman doesn’t carry a gun and refuses to murder even the most psychotic of villains even when their death would save countless others. Yet he will happily punch everything in his way to a bloody pulp. What kind of bizarre morals are those? You leave, as Batman, swaths of gang members with any number of broken limbs laying face down in the snow or in industrial factories or underground lairs or in cavernous sewers and somehow that wake of violence is better than shooting the villains who lead these gangs and kill the civilians? I just don’t understand him, and that adds into the bigger mosaic of immersion that comes from the story: would I actually behave like this? Not in the ‘would I dress up in a silly costume and run around at night beat up crims for fun in real life’ sense, but in the ‘does this character’s actions make any sense’ sense. Much the same way as we watch horror movies screaming “DON’T GO DOWN THE STAIRS, BECKY” we sit and watch Batman with a “Why are you even doing this?” firmly planted in our brains. This goes for the movies too, by the way. The entire character is hand-waved away with his graveling voice in some confused “Well, because I’m Bah-man” reasoning.

What I Did Like

The CSI thing was cool. They’re playing up the Detective Comics thing here and the crime scene reenactment actually has some cool features, like a simulated playthrough of the crime that you can scrub and look for clues. They’re really rather linear and Batman talks to himself to lead you through it, but if they used that same engine they could actually make a pretty cool straight up crime scene game (Castle game, anyone?). Oh, I should mention, the Batman talking to himself thing is awful and appears everywhere. You’re standing in front of the only door around, the only progression through the level and he chimes in “Those are Black Mask’s men. I bet I can make them tell me where he went” yeah, okay Batman. I wasn’t sure what I should do next, but you really helped me out. Worlds Greatest Detective indeed. They’re just silly and unnecessary and I don’t understand why they’re there.

The narrative sections of the story are actually pretty good. If you remember the scene from Arkham Asylum where Bruce is remembering the alley with his parents and the world around him starts to shift into that memory, it’s more of that style. The Joker > Harley interview is a remarkably elegant way for him to narrate a deeper inner emotion without relying on just the voice acting or just staring at him talk the whole time. As far as plot devices, this is where the game should go. Beating up another group of dudes doesn’t do anything for the story. Give us more of this. Go into the characters. Flesh them out.

Graphically lovely. The PhysX support is really neat with foggy hallways that flow around as you move and papers that flutter in the wind. The cape is still dynamic and the snow leaves actual footprints. Environments are much the same as earlier, but with sheer amounts of them (the game is 16.2 GB to download). The world feels empty, but it is Christmas Eve, so I guess there aren’t civilians just wandering about.

Conclusion

More of the same if you liked the first two. I can’t say I did.

#1reasonwhy

By the time you read this, it’ll probably be over. The hashtag #1reasonwhy was an outlet for female game devs to talk about their struggles. There’s a decent archive here that covers at least the solid beginning, before people like me devolved the voices.

Now, I am a white male – the demographic of antagonism in this case. But as a kid designer who forcibly broke into the field and ended up with relative success leading to a happy career, I wanted to write this encouragement: we are riding the wave of indie awesomeness. There has been no better time to do it yourself than right now.

A few notes: it seems like a lot of the complaints naturally leaned into sexism and I wanted to clarify that there are two types going on here. The first, sexism in the games themselves. We all know the Lara Croft types that are preposterously sexualized because the target market is nerdy white boys. Then, there’s the sexism in the market itself where the devs (being female) are outcasted by the older white nerdy boys. Neither of them cool, but they bannerhead my two points.

1. The market is literally begging for story based games. We’ve accomplished graphics to a level where, while they can always get better, it’s not really a limiting factor anymore. We’ve moved beyond the pixel-cum-story limitations of Space Invaders and find ourselves in deeply interactive, visually immersive and musically rich gameplay. A perfect canvas for stories. I tweeted a few, but off the top of my head: Portal, Portal 2, Half Life, Limbo, Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving, Mirror’s Edge, Bastion, Braid, Cave Story, World of Goo, Mark of the Ninja, The Stanley Parable, Every Day the Same Dream, and so forth. Games with stories and little to no sexuality. Then there’s games with mediocre to no story and fantastic gameplay: Jamestown, Greed Corp. Dustforce, Super Meat Boy, N+, Team Fortress 2, Faster Than Light and so on. After that there’s games that don’t feature humans at all: Geometry Wars, most racing games and simulators, etc. Ladies: you can make these games and entirely avoid all mention of sexuality. Tell good stories. We yearn for good stories and while this past year has actually been really good for them, it’s a rare thing from AAA titles. That’s why we’re loving all over the indie titles (how many AAA titles are above?). I mean, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights were both made entirely by one guy. It could easily have been one lady, which brings me to my next point:

2. Don’t break in. Build up. I don’t want to accuse anyone of whining, but it seems like the hashtag series pointed to ladies wanting to be part of the club and being rejected. I’m not saying that’s fair or right, but I am saying that talents can be taken elsewhere. You don’t need their silly club anyway. You have Kickstarter. You have a better measure of success. You have stories and passion and you’re being handed this worldwide megaphone called the internet. Make your games with strong females leads. Honestly, had Bastion starred a female, it would have made no difference to the game, but it would have been a notable win for you. Same with Limbo. Same with most of the games there. World of Goo doesn’t even have human characters. Mirror’s Edge and Portal already feature non-sexualized female protagonists. GLADoS is a disembodied female voice and one of the best characters probably ever. Be the developer, be the studio. Make what you want to see and forget the boy’s club even exists.

2.5. Work together. No man – or woman, as it were – is an island. Find people with your aspirations and help each other. Not just in a direct way, not just in a “I’m dev, she’s art and she’s music” role division way, but help each other as members of your group. One thing I love Twitter for, and this is an observation of guys, is that we’re constantly back and forth on “is this good?” – asking strangers who follow you – and offering to buy each other drinks. We are an estranged family, held together by the common thread of being designers or being coders or being whatever. Find your community and love each other. Competition can hurt or help you; shape it.

I don’t see any reason why, in the day and age of successful self publishing, you matter. Tall, short, thin, fat, male, female, young, old. So what? You’re a name on the computer screen and a talent. If your talent is good, you will rise. The internet is a meritocracy assuming all news spread equally. My main advice to anyone is get over yourself. You’re not a martyr for a demographic. You are a singular human and you’re allowed to do whatever the heck you want to do.

Do it well.

Steam Greenlight

I’ve agreed with Campster before – his other videos and observations are spot on – but the above strikes me as a little black and white.

The problem with the completely open argument is, and using the mobile app stores as an example (both Apple and Android), they don’t really push good content in the happy “cream floats to the top” way described. There’s the top ten list, which is feedback loop of increased sales and… everyone else. I agree, sure, that Angry Birds was a phenomenon of games going viral, but that wasn’t really the app store’s doing, it was the fact that the game was addicting and charming and delightful and word spread “You’ve got to download this game!”

It would be a hard argument to suggest that Angry Birds wouldn’t exist if there were a $100 entry fee to get in the store. If this is even remotely accurate, they spent $140 000 on development. So $100 would be 0.07% of the total cost. A fraction of the drop in the bucket. Like any business, that’s part of development cost that (hopefully) gets regained when you start making the kind of money Angry Birds did. It’s a gamble.

Now, the immediate counterargument is correct: “It doesn’t cost $100 for Steam to provide this service, it’s an infinite shelf space.” But that actually isn’t the point. You’re not paying $100 to get shelf space, you’re paying $100 as a token of “I believe in this idea enough that I’m willing to invest in it” because anyone who’s put any sort of effort into something should be willing to say exactly that. I don’t want to sound callous but $100 is working a saturday at a cafe down the street; it’s not exactly an impossible sum to come up with. If you think your idea is good enough to pursue and develop it into a working game, you probably already believe in it enough to put some money down. If it is truly good, you’ll make it back in sales. On the other hand, if you’re some kid in his mom’s basement making games (and I was this kid, years ago) you probably shouldn’t be clogging up the shelves even if they are infinite. Back then we had the Gamemaker forums and you’d post your amateur games to that. It was awesome. The community made up of people using the same language and playing with the same ideas would give you feedback and there was no barrier between me making absolute rubbish (and I did!) and posting it. With that said, Steam should not pursue that as the goal. There’s a big difference between indie games and basement games. Call it a walled garden, but I see it more as a “wash your hands before you come inside from the sandbox” sort of measure.

The expansion of that is the ultimate open marketplace: distributing your product without Steam at all. A perfect example is Blendo Games who made the brilliant Gravity Bone and distributed it via their site for free. It was an .exe and picked up it’s own fantastic reviews for being awesome, passed on by word of mouth and eventually the bigger game news sites. There was no bar to fill up via likes but there was an entry fee: hosting his Blendo site. I’m just guessing based on my own hosting, but it’s probably around $100. Per year. Fast forward a bit and we see other crtically acclaimed success in the 3rd Humble Indie Bundle and eventually 30 Flights of Loving, the soul sequel to Gravity Bone (and, I should say, also fantastic) on Steam for $5. Outside the garden entirely was where Brendon Chung (the one-man studio) proved himself / his ability to make good games and demonstrate that they were worth paying money for.

Youtube is a wonderful thing, as is Vimeo and Society6 and Etsy and Ebay. These are places where you can do things for free because some way or other, they’re making money out of your dealings. That’s fine, we agree, because we get something out of that exchange as well. It’s symbiotic, but it’s not a direct comparison for the ecosystem of paid games. Even 99ยข apps create a sort of hesitation and weight that simply clicking on a Youtube link doesn’t have. Again we see the cream doesn’t float to the top; Errant Signal itself (who, despite this rebuttal, I do love and would describe as quality content) has just over half million combined views and yet the most inane, brain numbing crap on the frontpage gets millions per video. In a just ecosystem this wouldn’t be the case and I genuinely wish channels like Errant Signal got the respect deserved. But, that’s a side note as example of how Youtube shouldn’t be the gold standard model.

TL;DR Should there be an arbitrary like bar? No. If you pay the entrance fee, you’re in. Should there be an entrance fee? Yes, I think it’s a good way to keep the market honest with ideas truly believed in. If you want to make dumb little games there are more than enough channels already available for distribution.

The Fault in Level Design Architecture

This is something rampant and widespread in level-based games, don’t get me wrong. I’m picking on Tomb Raider specifically because I know exactly why it has to be this way, it still bothers the player’s subconscious. It happens a lot in Dues Ex: Human Revolution too, but that at least could be explained by, say, defense turrets and other devices unseen but dangerous until you deactivate them from the inside when you’re ready to leave. That’s plausible.

So the levels are generally something like this:

You start at the bottom there and grapple up some mountain or have your butler in a helicopter or yacht drop you off, then you figure out the puzzle to open the door and proceed through this gauntlet of traps and trials, killing the animals that have been sealed in the tomb for countless years waiting just for you to come. Maybe that’s why they’re so ferocious: they haven’t eaten in a long time. After dispatching all danger and overcoming all ridiculous odds, you finally come to the main room containing the crystal or amulet or key or whatever and proceed to grab it – here there’s two options: one, a secret door in the back opens up and you just run out happily. Two: the temple starts to shake and crumble and you go back through all of those traps again until you get back to the front door where some bad guy with a terrible fake accent thanks you for retrieving the goods for them, proceeds to knock you out and takes it.

Now, I’m entirely happy with this. The games are still entertaining and I quite like them. The puzzle rooms are often clever and that side of the level design is actually fantastic. If you can ignore the very obvious and conveniently placed ledges and gaps that are perfectly sized for Lara, the environments are actually very cool. The way some of the rooms fit together to allow you to do some things while certain areas are activated / switch when not are nothing short of brilliant on the designer’s part – commendable.

But then there’s the bit that bothers me.

All of these tombs, save for some of the darker corridors, are naturally lit by huge chasms in the ceiling. Looks cool, sure, sunlight streaming in. Makes for a workable game, since it isn’t completely sealed and black, which is, you know, nice. But it raises the question: if you have the helicopter there, why don’t you just drop in, grab the crystal amulet of cosmic power and activate the winch to pull you back out. It’d be so much easier!

The better question is why the bad guys don’t do that. They thank Lara for retrieving it because they know the traps would kill them, so they just wait for her to come back out – I would too – but they have helicopters and winches – go for the huge skylights.

Now, it’s a petty nit to be picked but I’d argue that it’s this sort of subconscious disconnect that hurts video games’ realism without you even ever fully knowing it.

Image sources via clickthrough.

Dustforce Game Review

It was on Steam sale so I had to pick it up. I paid the extra dollar and a half for the soundtrack, which turns out to be one of my favorite parts.

There’s a divide in this review, and I wish it weren’t true, but I have to throw it out there: I bitterly hate this game. I absolutely love this game.

So, Dustforce is in the same impossibruuu rage quit style as Super Meat Boy and N+ before it and like those games, I am utterly terrible at it. I just, I can’t. I get frustrated by my own lack of ability to do what I want and eventually have to stop because I’m physically seething. It’s not pretty.

And then, when I’m listening to the soundtrack in my car and it’s so perfect and peaceful it lures me back in; it makes it seem like the game is easy and that if I went back right I would be better at it or something. It’s a trap. That’s how it gets to you.

Then you can see why I’m so torn. I love everything about this – the style is great, the gameplay is (when you can do it) silky smooth and there are those moments where you feel truly awesome chaining backflips and wall jumps and attacks together in perfect harmony. The soundtrack, as I’ve mentioned, is spot on with reminiscing chiptune and environment ambiance. The ‘plot’ is simple: you’re a superpowered janitor and things are dirty. Go to it. That’s entirely sufficient. The levels are unlockable as your progress and you slowly build up the keys even if you’re rubbish at it like me, so you can keep going despite mediocre scores across the board. All four characters are playable from the start and are essentially the same save for appearance.

Here’s one of the world records:

Which is just sickening. They make it look so easy.

That is a cool feature though, at the end of each level there’s a scoreboard comparing the times and scores of everyone who’s ever played that level. Crushingly, I’m always near the bottom. On one level I am literally second last. In the world. Ouch.

No, but it’s a great game and I can’t recommend it enough to the types of people who enjoyed the masochism that was Super Meat Boy. Just because I’m terrible doesn’t mean it’s a terrible game by any means.

In Gaming news: Portal 2 DLC and Reset

As we know, Portal 2 is awesome. It’s been a little over a year since it’s release and next week Valve is laying down the community driven map system with editor and I have to say, the UI looks slick. I was worried – there’s a lot of complexity in a test chamber and 3D editor interfaces are generally sort of terrible at intuition. My fears have been quelled, replaced by sheer excitement for the release. May 8th. Ask Siri to mark your calendars.

In other gaming news, a trailer that caught my attention:

A trailer of enigma no doubt. But gah! That’s in game footage. They wrote the graphics engine because they didn’t like any of the existing ones. It’s first person puzzle single player co-op (whatever that is). The teaser art (also in game footage) looks like this. You can find that trailer song here. They’re writing a blog and making notes about all of the development. This is the sentence structure of Brennan Letkeman swooning. Consider me a fan of this indie studio and all that they’ve done so far. Even if the game release itself is utter rubbish, that trailer is something to be proud of.

So good, you guys. So good.

via

Syndicate – Bradley Wright Concept Art

I appreciate any concept artist who can move so fluidly from characters to props to environments. Bradley Wright, you are the man.

Honestly, I wish I could post more but I’m already way over my vertical usual, so I’ll just have to redirect you to his wall of awesome. Seriously, I’m in awe at the sheer amount of work here. Fantastic.

Brink Concept Art Inspiration

In preparation for my graduation and moving I’m trimming the fat from my life and trading old useless things for either more valuable or less voluminous things such as video games. I still don’t have any time to play, but someday if and when I ever get sick I’ll be set.

Today I got Brink. It’s a game that didn’t review very well and sort of fell off the radar for most gamers. I’ve only played the first few levels and already I agree, but more importantly the art style is fantastic. It’s vaguely Mirror’s Edge in it’s sharp architecture and clean, smooth lines but with the chaotic ruin of Portal 2‘s beginning chambers (Brink’s environments have either been abandoned for some time or are active slums).

I remember being really excited when the first teaser trailers came out but when the debut price hovered at $50 I didn’t bother. So, it’s a bit late, sure, but we can still draw inspiration from it.

The parkour in the trailers, by the way, is grossly over played. The in game version is pretty meh. Still, just ignore him and watch the environment:

It’s a cool style and I’ve been in Blender making a few airports and malls. I’m reminded of the Wipeout Uber Mall and perhaps that’s another perfect game to visit for inspiration.

Farmville

Here’s the deal, lots of media people are talking about the “wasted potential” time because people are playing games like Farmville. The thing people forget when doing the math for hours wasted playing these games is that the people who play these games aren’t typically the people capable of curing cancer. That’s why they’re playing Facebook games. So, is X million hours really “wasted”? Still probably, but it’s certainly not fair to say that we’ve lost X million cancer-curing hours.

Problem 2:

These exploits arguably fall into line with something Van Cleave had said about how people can be heavy gamers and still find balance. “I know plenty of people with other activities and interests, their health, family, friends, and work, and who game 10 to 25 hours a week. And on top of that, they’re good parents, they have a good job. That sounds pretty healthy to me,” he said.

Uh… 10-25 hours a week? At just over an hour a day I’m willing to bet they’d be right at home next to most families’ TV watching schedule. When did average TV watcher become “heavy” gamer?

I’ve probably made this argument before, but I’ll say it again: video games can’t be any worse for you than passively watching tellie. Hand eye coordination, problem solving, reflex twitching, teamwork, Mountain Dew drinking. You know, all those wholesome things. All those things you don’t do just sitting there spineless on the sofa.

So play on! You could be doing a lot worse.

Or, for extra awesome points, actually do something awesome like cure cancer or develop a cultish religion based on this blog.

Jamestown

This game was part of the Humble Indie Bundle a friend gave me for Christmas and I hadn’t actually played it until the other day. I’m actually really glad I discovered it because it’s the perfect break game – you can play for 5 or ten minutes at a time and then resume working.

It’s a danmaku shmup which is to say skin-of-your-teeth sheer insane bullet hell type. I’m terrible at these. Most of the gameplay is me alternating between giddy “Oh my goodness how on earth am I still alive” teeth gritting and heart panic that my usual cardio workout would be jealous of. In other words: fantastic.

The soundtrack is awesome, the plot is ridiculous and entirely fitting. The pixel-perfect sprite work reminds me of the old Yukon Trail games we used to play on the elementary school computers. It all comes together into this little ball of excellence that spites the polish of any big name game.

Then there’s these bonus levels:

That look so easy when other people play them and are entirely impossible when I try it. I’m not sure how many times I’ve played that particular bomb one, but I remember the first time distinctly: “Oh, 15 seconds, that can’t be that hard. The first half is entirely calm, so it’s really only 8 or 9 seconds that you have to dodge and survive… OH MY GOODNESS NO” *ship explodes immediately*

And from there a Super Meat Boy-like masochist addiction was born.

All in all, it’s awesome. Buy it. Not just to support the indie devs, but because it’s a game that honestly holds it’s own. It’s the perfect coffee break length and despite being digestible in small chunks will provide hours of quality heart-palpitating fun.


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