Friday, June 25, 2010

2010 Summer Burn-Off, Part 1

During the summer, gamers have come to rely on having a few months of downtime to allow them to go through titles they may have missed during the busier months of the fall and winter. As a result, June, July and August are usually the realm of console exclusives that were previously out of reach, bargain-bin titles from past years that got skipped, or the shame-tinged reapings of a particularly devilish Steam sale.

This year, I almost didn't think it'd happen. After all, the first five months of 2010 have been jammed with massively ambitious AAA games - for a while, it seemed as though the trend would keep up straight through to the fall. Fortunately, just as our ears have stopped ringing from the clarion call of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, most game publishers have decided to give us a break for a few months.

My summer project is going to be Demon's Souls, a game that I still feel I've barely experienced and one that I dearly wish to see in its entirety. But as I've been wrapping the school year and getting set for summer, I've also been sampling a number of titles that I acquired through various inexpensive means. Many of them will be the subject of longer posts in the future, but for the time being, I thought I'd share some thoughts on what I've been playing.

Sign of the Times: FIFA

Worst. Mod. Ever.

I feel mildly bad about saying "Kick Ghana's ass tomorrow", so let us just leave it at "Go US!"

Thursday, June 24, 2010

End of Line

This week at Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con we watched Tron. I hadn't seen that movie in a long time, and I was impressed by A) how completely weird it is and B) how relevant much of its subject matter remains today.

I found the following scene to be particularly prescient:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Consider The Gamer

What can I say about Tom Bissell's new book Extra Lives? I feel utterly unqualified to judge it as a work of criticism, as a personal memoir, or as a critical manifesto. Or maybe it's more that I almost feel over-qualified, as though any thoughts I have about the book might as well have come from within it.

Maybe that doesn't even make sense. Though I'm pretty sure that other games writers/bloggers who have read the book know what I'm trying to say. Then again, I'm actually not going to assume that all of our readers are already aware of Extra Lives. So it is to that casual reader that I wish to say, with strong posture and forceful delivery:  

"You should buy this book."

To make my case, I could point you to any number of glowing, big-league reviews that will greatly help justify your purchase. Or I might direct you towards the incendiary excerpt about cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV that The Guardian ran a few months ago. Or best of all, I could suggest that you listen to Michael Abbott's latest Brainy Gamer Podcast with Bissell, which might be the most relaxed and enjoyable hour of video game nerdery I've ever had the pleasure of downloading.

But since I just linked you to all that stuff, I guess I'll share my thoughts about the book instead.

Over the course of Extra Lives's 201 pages I never lost the feeling of relief that finally, someone with Bissell's extraordinary writing ability has turned towards gaming. There is no precedent for the depth and grace with which he illuminates gaming's big-picture questions, as well as the smaller, darker corners where the medium actually lives. What's more, Bissell's gift for words both inspires me and gently reminds me how much my own writing can still be improved.

In addition to sharing his own experiences, it's a relief to see that Bissell has devoted his sizable menagerie of similes and metaphors to the task of describing the experience of play. His recounting of a harrowing fight-or-flight moment in Left 4 Dead comes off like a grizzled war vet describing his battlefield exploits, perfectly capturing the "We were in the shit, man" feeling that makes that game unique. Of Mass Effect's control scheme, he offers the hilariously spot-on observation that "throwing a grenade at a platoon of geth with the "back" button feels as fundamentally mistaken as using the volume knob on your car stereo to roll down the driver's-side window." Perhaps best of all is an early chapter detailing his first encounter with Resident Evil (also published in issue #0 of Kill Screen); it is as gripping and visceral an account of the act of play as I've encountered.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Big Dumb Awesome E3 Round-Up

"Oh great," you grumble to yourself, "just what I need. Another group of people talking about stupid effing E3." And yeah, okay, you're right - the last thing the world needs is another group of people doing a round-table about the most decadent week-long video game advertisement in the history of the world.

But hey, it's not just some group of people; it's our group of people! And whatever, we spent like four days emailing about it, so it only seemed right to edit our thoughts together into a vaguely cohesive whole and publish it.

For some great write-ups from folks who were actually at the expo, check out David Thomas's thoughtful dispatches for Paste and John Teti's refreshingly curmudgeonish posts at The Onion A.V. Club. But if you're looking for the half-formed opinions of a bunch of jokers who watched it on the internet, you've come to the right place.

Ready? Oh-kay. Gimmie an E! Gimmie another E! Gimmie yet another E!

What's that spell?

Kirk: Hi, guys. Okay, E3... here goes. Personally speaking, I never know quite what to expect at these humongo events - will something surprising really happen? I remember back before I became a game-news junkie, I would be surprised by everything that came out of E3. These days, it's like I know about everything weeks in advance.

Annie: I think that I have lost a bit of my childlike wonder at E3. Having been to a few internal Microsoft events (don't ask, it was a dark time in my life), I fully expected an entire week of nothing but Kinect, so I guess it was a nice surprise that Kinect didn't hijack the entire show. Although a Cirque du Soleil performance is still a pretty big "Hai guys, look at MEEEEEE!", it seems that Microsoft is a bit more graceful about not stealing everyone else's thunder these days.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Own Private E3

I've been having a lot of fun with E3 this year. I've watched all the major press conferences, tweeting along with my gaming twitter-friends with reckless abandon. I winced when Joel McHale tried to sell us on how "awesome" he thought Ghost Recon: Future Soldier looked. I was charmed when Miyamoto crashed onto the main stage at the Nintendo press conference, Master Sword in hand. I was baffled by Tak Fujii's nonsensical Ninety-Nine Nights 2 presentation at Konami's presser.

I learned that "presser" means "press conference."

And yet the twist, of course, is that I am nowhere near the LA convention center. I'm in my apartment in sunny San Francisco, catching up on end-of-the-year school stuff and screwing around on the internet during the first week of summer break.

I'm not sure how it stacks up to last year's conference, but E3 this year has certainly been the most web-integrated, accessible trade show I've ever experienced. Between the larger press conferences streaming in real-time at GameTrailers (who appears to be a direct sponsor of the event?), the constant hands-on updates from Kotaku and Gamasutra, and the insanely active #E3 tag on Twitter, it is possible to create an awfully convincing E3 simulacrum in one's own apartment or office.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Armadillo By Way Of Hashbury

Found this in the SF Chronicle yesterday and asked myself, “Where have I seen this guy before?”

And then I remembered that I once handed his ass to him after he caught me cheating at poker in Thieves' Landing:

Mass Effect 2's "Overlord" DLC is Pretty Frickin' Cool

So amid all the hullabaloo coming out of LA these past few days, it was easy to overlook the fact that on Tuesday, EA dropped the most sizeable DLC pack yet for Mass Effect 2. It's called "Overlord," and I had totally forgotten it was coming out until Brad Gallaway mentioned it on Twitter.

So as soon as I was done watching E3 videos (Pretty colors! Comedians! Want to buy!) I coughed up $7, downloaded the add-on and fired it right up. Over the course of the next 1-2 hours, the gruff-but-caring Cerberus space sniper Kayria Shepard headed to a remote facility to square off against a dangerous rogue AI. And it was super rad.

I won't say too much about the plot or the gameplay - suffice to say there are numerous occasions in which you'll be doing things you never got a chance to do during Mass Effect 2's main campaign. It's a good story, and Bioware has done a clever job of dressing up art assets, environments and enemies in ways that make them feel fresh. Interestingly, most of the story takes place outside of cutcenes, which changed the missions' feel significantly from the main game. The sound effects deserve special mention, too - actually just one sound effect in particular. Too bad about the still-buzzkilling loading screens, though.

The atmosphere also stands out, and for the most part embraces a suspenseful, tense tone that the main campaign would only get at occasionally. In fact, at times Overlord kinda feels like survival-horror. Many elements of the plot and environment are lifted straight out of System Shock 2, which in this case works pretty well.

There are also more Dead Space-esque environmental puzzles than there were in the entirety of the main game, and although they can feel a bit out of place, they also bring a welcome change to the game's pace and helped me feel more connected to the environment.

Further changing things up is the fact that the Hammerhead (the vehicle that was introduced in the Firewalker DLC) makes a reappearance in Overlord. If you haven't played Firewalker, picture a Mako that can fly and whose main cannon is aimed with the right thumbstick. It's a huge improvement. Also, if you haven't played Firewalker, you can probably safely skip it - Overlord should do a sufficient job of satisfying your (bizarre) need for vehicle segments.

But beyond those new features, it was all the little touches that made Overlord so enjoyable for me. The whole experience is graced with a multitude of inspired flourishes and has the same level of detail and polish as anything from Mass Effect 2's proper game.

Going in, I honestly wasn't sure what to expect and I came away really glad I'd checked it out. For $7, Overlord took me through a well-paced, fun adventure and let me do a ton of cool Mass Effect-y stuff I'd never done before. Hard to argue with that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I Think We Can Put Our Differences Behind Us...

"... for science".

...and the internet let out a collective "SQUEEEE" at the sound of her voice.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

Wonderful 8-Bit Thing of the Day

Avast! I've been adrift, scouring the high seas of 8-bit for precious, nostalgic booty! Though I fear the ship of 8-bit wonders may be gradually sinking, I have uncovered this treasure, from the deepest depths of the mysterious East:

I love everything about this, from the perfection of each "pixel" to the creative use of furniture elements. Any aspiring masochist filmmaker who has ever attempted to do stop motion can attest to its utter tediousness, and so my hat is off to whoever made this sweet little number. I desperately look forward to the day when this is the only use I have for Post-Its.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Read My Lipsync

My recent experiences playing Red Dead Redemption, along with Kirk's recent complaints in his Splinter Cell: Conviction review, are a reminder of a silent scourge amongst the narrative games of today. Despite all the technological innovations we've seen, particularly in graphics, I'm struck by one key area we appear to have mostly failed at: syncing the lips (and body language) of digital characters to their audio. I know, it sounds nit-picky, but for me it's one of the most annoying shortcomings of many games, particularly narrative titles.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Armed to the Teeth

"Even a really thoughtful, interesting game like Bioshock, say, when you describe it to someone and say it’s about Objectivism and it’s about how you deal with power, and it’s beautiful.  People ask, “Well, what’s it about?” You say, “Well, you run around this underwater city shooting lightning out of your hands at psychopaths.” The reigning paradigm of game design is to send someone running amok through some system populated by enemies.  And as much as I love those games, I think they will remain in the comic book ghetto until more designers figure out how to make enjoyable games that don’t involve picking up an armament of some kind."
-The quote-tastic Tom Bissell
in an Interview with Fanzine 
"I've had a lot of story-related questions, but nobody's asked me, 'what's the goal? They've crashed and now what?' My problem here is that whatever I tell you will be a spoiler. We want you to have fun when you play the game. But the first idea is, 'let's get the fuck out of here!' This is a really unpleasant place. Everything is trying to kill us. These savages, tribes and gangs are trying to kill us. The whole bloody planet is trying to kill us."
-Adrian Chmielarz, Creative Director of Bulletstorm
in an interview with
"Lots of big-budget video games are designed to deliver an arc of brutal empowerment. Whether it's powers, weapons or martial arts moves, you start off with a skill set that grows more prodigious over time and the ability to handle more and bigger enemies comes with an increasing level of spectacle. Whether or not the spectacle is empty depends on how other aspects of the game are executed." 
-Evan Narcisse, The Atlantic 
"It's pure genocidal fun, which many FPS developers today seem to think is beneath them. (...) As for the guns, I could mention the hugely satisfying penis-extension gun that pins baddies to walls with entire trees, but all you really need to know is that there's a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning. I wish I could make something like that up - it shoots shurikens and lightning, it could only be more awesome if it had tits and was on fire."
-Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, Reviewing Painkiller

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Flawed Ballad of John Marston

"In life you have to do a lot of things you don't fucking want to do. Many times, that's what the fuck life is... one vile fucking task after another."
-Al Swearengen, Deadwood

My review of Red Dead Redemption is up over at Paste. I had (and am still having) a hell of a good time with the game; it works well as a shooter and even better as a living, breathing world. But as a story, I think it has some maddening problems. I wanted to use this space to elaborate on them in greater detail.

Despite the emergent possibilities of its open world and the rowdy fun of its multiplayer, Red Dead Redemption is a game with a very specific tale to tell, and so it must be judged accordingly. So it's too bad that despite doing a good number of things right in its opening and closing chapters, the narrative of Red Dead Redemption is ripped down the middle by a dissonance that is all but impossible to ignore.

(Story spoilers abound in both the post and the comments, so proceed with appropriate caution.)

Liberty City, Inverted

Lead writer Dan Houser and the rest of his team at Rockstar deserve credit for greatly improving on the storytelling they did in Grand Theft Auto IV. Interestingly enough, although Red Dead Redemption succeeds where Grand Theft Auto failed, it fails by attempting to co-opt one of Grand Theft Auto IV's great successes.

I thought Grand Theft Auto IV was a hugely successful satire of the modern American way of life. The game provocatively (if a bit broadly) lampooned America's advertising-drenched culture, hypocritical news media and ruthless, shallow view of success.  It helped that the setting was both incredibly realistic and cartoonishly over-the-top, and that those two elements managed to peacefully co-exist. Despite its evocative skyline, Liberty City was a caricature of New York City, a place where every hot dog vendor spouted thickly accented double-entendres and Lady Liberty held a venti mochaccino in place of a torch.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Let's Get Physical

By Kirk Hamilton

For some reason, I decided to take a look at the depictions of physical intimacy in four recently released games. I don't believe my motivation was purely so that Gamer Melodico could be the first videogame blog in history to feature a Glee screengrab, but it's entirely possible.

At any rate, only the God of War III video is NSFW. Some questions to think about while watching these - how does each scene portray its characters? If the scene works, why does it work? What does "work" mean? How does each scene play into or subvert traditional gender roles? Is the scene at all informed by the gameplay? In addition to issues with the uncanny valley, is there anything inherent to video games that makes depictions of intimacy difficult to pull off?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Question of the Week: I'd Watch That For A Dollar

By GM Staff

We'd like to pause for a moment and welcome our newest contributor, Mr. Sam Shahrani! Sam is a man of many talents - he teaches computer junk for a living and got his master's in game design at Indiana University, so he (allegedly) knows what he's talking about. Perhaps he can help bring our blog a modicum of credibility? It'll be an uphill battle, to be sure. Sam's also a part-time cop, so if anyone gets out of line, it's a safe bet he knows like a half dozen non-violent ways to show them the error of their ways. Check out his first post, and do be nice to him.

Moving right along. Question! Of the week!

Last weekend the Bruckheimer-produced, Darko-starring, not-particularly-Persian Prince of Persia opened in theaters nationwide. This weekend, the crowds have finally died down, so we here at Gamer Melodico are... still totally not going to see it. Which brings us to our question: What game-based movie, when given the right creative direction and casting, would you actually pay to see?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

In The Shadows, Watching, Waiting

By Kirk Hamilton

Every year or so, two very similar movies will be released at around the same time. Deep Impact and Armageddeon, Antz and A Bug's Life, The Illusionist and The Prestige, The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan... the list goes on.

The same thing happens with games to a point, but the similarities usually don't go too far beyond the genre and maybe the setting. But I can't have been the only one to notice the weird similarities between Alan Wake and Splinter Cell: Conviction, outwardly-dissimilar though the games may be.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Seven Things I Learned About the World by Playing Red Dead Redemption

By Dan Apczynski

1. When propositioned by a hooker the polite response is, “No thank you, ma’am. Unfortunately, I have a wife.”
This no-bullshit response pulls triple duty by highlighting one’s respect for the world’s oldest profession, declining the invitation, and offering insight into one’s true feelings about marriage. If you know what’s good for you, your wife had better be out of earshot.

2. At the blackjack table, nobody will ever suggest that it’s a bad idea to stand on 8.
So what if you’ve been playing blackjack for years? It’s still pretty easy to get confused with all this “hit” and “stand” business (when one of two closely placed buttons ultimately determines your call). Don’t expect anyone to be impressed that you like to live dangerously.

3. It’s hard to swim in spurs.
Sorry, cowboys: Michael Phelps you are not.

4. Mexican bandits and Mexican police look an awful lot alike.
To all of the honorable Mexican law bringers who have died in the line of duty because of me, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell whether you were shooting at the bad guys or me. Banditos, if you’d please take a cue from your white/Native American colleagues north of the border and pick out some funny looking hats, we’d all really appreciate it.

5. Camping is a great way to get where you’re going.
Who knew stopping for a siesta on the nearest mesa would be such a great way to get from here to there? The hell with taking a cab—next time I get wasted in the Mission and need to get back to the other end of the city, I’m going to duck into a nearby alley and build myself a campfire.

6. Horse reincarnation is an accelerated process.
While you’re out on the range, it’s important to always respect and care for your equine companion. But if she takes a bullet or runs off a cliff, don’t sweat it too bad—the transmigration of a horse’s soul functions on a “revolving door” system, and doesn’t take much longer than a minute or two. As a bonus, if you bought Mister Ed from your local purveyor of horse deeds, your new filly will be a carbon copy of the one you just sent to its maker. Strange and mystical creatures!

7. There’s a bigger market for dead armadillos than you'd think.
Next time you’re forced to cut coupons between paychecks, crawl through the brush with your trusty pea shooter and take down every armadillo that scampers your way. Those weird little critters fetch a surprisingly substantial price. It’s a good idea to get in now, though, before the armadillo bubble bursts.

Reticulating Splines

By Sam Shahrani

Recently I was looking through some boxes and stumbled across a dusty copy of Wil Wright's "Spore" next to an equally neglected copy of SimCity 4. Seeing the two games made me wonder: What ever happened to the once-mighty SimCity franchise? Oh, certainly the "Sim" franchise is alive and well, but it was SimCity that got the ball rolling. These days it's all but vanished from the face of the earth.

In advance, I should note that I love SimCity. I have ever since a neighborhood kid showed me the original game, complete with its maroon anti-piracy codebook. Starting up SimCity felt like playing with something forbidden, accessing a WarGames-style supercomputer in which I could actually control a city and its least that's what 10-year-old-me thought. Oddly, I was less enthused about destroying my city and much more intrigued by the construction of it. I looked at population and income as a sort of "winning", a challenge to see how big and complex I could make things and, perhaps more importantly, how I could master the rules of the game as I played.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An Ode to the Humble Arcade

By Annie Wright
Photograph by Maryellen May Greulich

Where were you when you first fell in love with a game? These days, there are many who would answer "My parents' basement," "A friend's house," or if you were that kid, "From the comfort of my race car bed, surrounded by Lego and bits of Fruit Stripe stuck to the back of my pants." But for those of us whose parents didn't go for consoles right away, there is another common answer - we fell in love at the arcade.

Oh Hell Yes

The same rumor has turned up in enough different places that it appears to be all but certain: this fall, Team Ico will be releasing remastered PS3 versions of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Long have I awaited this news, considering that those are two of the only indespensable classics that I haven't yet played. I wanted to take a moment to express my enthusiasm.


Okay, glad I got that out of my system. I know more than I'd like to about Shadow, particularly the ending revelation, but I know very little about Ico beyond its basic setup. But I am so looking forward to finally seeing what both games are all about, particularly in anticipation of The Last Guardian. If the rumors are true, it'll easily be the best gaming news I've heard in a long while.