Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow first captivated me with the teaser trailer that was released back in 2009. While I must confess that my only real exposure to a Castlevania game is having played and beat Circle of the Moon on Gameboy Advance, and a brief excursion on Castlevania 64, I was nonetheless excited to dive into a three-dimensional gothic fantasy brought to life by Kojima and company (of Metal Gear Solid fame). Having played through the entire campaign, and also completed a good portion of the optional challenges and such, my lasting impression is one of mixed feelings; for every great step forward, a small trip occurs in the process, and for every traditional Castlevania-themed element, an attempt to alter the proven formula causes more than one facepalm. While Castlevania is an enjoyable game, and many of its flaws will be overlooked by folks who haven't had much exposure to the third-person action/adventure genre, veterans will likely be irked by a handful of minor, but constant issues.

Castlevania gets a lot of things right, let’s first establish this fact. Being a single player-only game, the spectacle of the settings often inspires awe and the visuals never disappoint. Enemies are present in sufficient variety that I never felt like I was killing the same enemy the whole game over; literally dozens of types of monsters impose and provide unique challenges in different combinations and settings. The game is broken up into thirteen chapters, and every chapter is subdivided into between two and nine different missions. The scope and length of the game are massive, and this is a thirty-to-forty hour commitment just to see the story’s resolve. From beginning to end, Castlevania is quite a spectacle of a game.

The story is a tale (it is a tale only because it is narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart) of Gabriel Belmont and his struggle against the Lords of Shadow and their evil dominions, which are encroaching on peaceful lands. In the hope of bringing his wife back from the dead, and driven by revenge, Gabriel runs headlong into the various lands under evil dominion to kick all kinds of ass, and be miserable all the while. While most games that require thirty or more hours for a playthrough will provide a handful of twists, changes in destination, stunning revelations, and a handful of characters, Castlevania delivers a disappointing narrative. From the beginning, it is a large-scale fetch quest. While I am not adverse to linear narratives in my video games, this story is a plain, one-dimensional vanilla-flavored quest game through a tour of settings inspired from horror and mythological literature. Even the last chapter of the game, in which all manner of wild and hidden truths are revealed to the player (as per usual with Kojima games) does little to justify the monothematic campaign which takes itself so seriously. I would have much preferred that a narrative be less emphasized, because it is adequate for an adventure game but is constantly being forced upon the player.

From the lowly goblins and werewolves of the early stages, to the persistent and aggressive vampires that populate the last quarter of the journey, Castlevania is not lacking in enemy variety. Castlevania has an amalgamation of monsters, both from mythology (vampire, chupacabra) and original creations (Black Knight, Crow Witch), all operate with unique behaviors and attacks. Boss battles are always exciting, often excessive, usually challenging and rarely disappointing. As one who often starts games on the hardest difficulty available to me from the outset, a handful of levels and bosses were truly challenging; many requiring more than one retry! Shocking, I know.

Grand mountain ranges, giant castles, gloomy swamps and bridges against sunset backdrops are just a sample of the settings in which Gabriel will do battle. As I previously highlighted, this game is grand in scale and gorgeous at many turns. Castlevania really delivers a sense of dread as I approached certain enemy strongholds, traversing a frozen bridge to a massive cathedral. Gloom and hopelessness became apparent when I emerged from a portal into a deadly swamp, and met an ancient witch. The mystery of a giants’ graveyard evoked my curiosity. Shigeru Miyamoto has said the most important part of making video games is the link between the developer and the player, and I must say that the fellows at Kojima Productions certainly know how to impress with scenery. While the aesthetic appeal of the game as a whole can not compensate for the shortcomings of the gameplay and story, the environments stand alone as some of the best, if not the best of any game I’ve played.

Castlevania’s gameplay is like finding a hair in a good bowl of pasta. For the most part it’s good and satisfying, but having just pulled someone’s follicle out from between your teeth really dilutes the rest of the meal. On paper, Castlevania has everything that a good action/adventure ought to: combat, a unique fighting mechanic, platforming, puzzles, and some light RPG elements for some upgrading. In execution, however, it stumbles in a few places, barely saving itself from a complete faceplant.

Let’s start with a comprehensive understanding of the battle system, and the light/shadow magic mechanic. As is expected from a Castlevania game, the main dealer of death and pain is a whip, or as it is dubbed here, the “Combat Cross”. As a melee weapon, the Combat Cross has a naturally impressive range, and the combat proceeds at a steady pace, and all connecting attacks slow the action for a fraction of a second, which is barely noticeable. Anyone who has played and enjoyed any entry from the God of War franchise will feel right at home, as Gabriel’s whip is reminiscent (but not a duplicate) of Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, another whip-like weapon. Admittedly, the brawling in this game doesn’t feel quite as air-tight as it ought to (considering the speed of enemies’ attacks and movement) but this is no real dealbreaker. Light and heavy attacks are absent, instead replaced by straight and area attacks, which perform exactly as indicated. Area attacks are weaker but effective for crowd control, which straight attacks may only tag one or two enemies at a time but are the real damage-dealers. Rapidly tapping, holding, and directional modifications via control stick are all present for mixing up the input commands, and produce heavy, pounding attacks, pop-ups, dash attacks and the like.

Additionally present, but with less influence, are specialty item attacks. Daggers are the standard projectile weapon, holy water has an intense grenade effect against most enemies, faeries serve as distraction as they flutter about an arena, and dark crystals are the rarest and most effective of specialty items, as they deal a lot of pain to every enemy on screen with a summoned demon. Daggers, holy water, and faeries are more effective against certain types of enemies, and the log book, accessed conveniently from the pause menu, effectively tracks these weaknesses to keep the mixing-and-matching to a minimum; all that is required of the player to discover which item an enemy is most susceptible to is to defeat just one. Also noteworthy is that there is no shortage of resupplies on daggers, faeries and holy waters, so their use is encouraged.

Light and Shadow magic really set Castlevania apart from other third-person action games. Light magic, when activated, replenishes Gabriel’s health with every melee attack that connects, and Shadow magic deals extra damage, and each magic has a special effect on specialty items. The magic meters are charged and spent separately from each other, triggering magic is assigned to each bumper, and collecting yellow orbs to charge magic is assigned to L3/R3, the stick buttons, which works well. Three ways exist to accumulate yellow orbs: killing enemies, breaking destructible elements of the environment, and hitting enemies while the Focus meter is fully charged. Early in the game, before magic capacity upgrades are acquired, the orbs from fallen enemies will do just fine to keep the magic meters charged. However, around chapter four when the enemies become more aggressive and the player’s magic capacity is two to three times what it started out at, charging the Focus meter becomes crucial. Charging the Focus meter means blocking just before an enemy’s attack will land to intercept and stun them, or landing several hits in a row (around 12-20 of weaker attacks, 2-5 for stronger ones) from the Combat Cross without being hit. Once it is charged the yellow orbs start flooding in. This makes the ability to block and dodge effectively and link together many attacks imperative, and it really requires a lot of focus from the player (pun intended). Charging and maintaining Focus is one of the most daunting difficulty curves in recent memory. With only one or two health-replenishing stations in any given mission, Light magic usage is crucial, while Shadow magic is an accessory that’s nice to employ for some extra oomph when you’re seriously laying the smack down.

The combat in Castlevania, as previously mentioned, is entirely functional. However, it doesn’t shatter any barriers. While the special move store is full of techniques with simple button combinations, most of which perform a unique attack, there was little incentive to deviate from one standard straight combo, one combo to repel nearby enemies, and the heavy attack series. Not that I was too lazy to learn other moves, but many of them are simply inapplicable in the most appropriate situations; dodging, intercepting and blocking make most crowd-control techniques instantly obsolete because more threatening enemies fail to flinch when they are struck, and most of the magic-enabled attacks are not worth the sacrifice in time that is required for execution. Also, and this may be more of a personal complaint, but the fact that getting hit while a magic is activated seems to eliminate the point of Shadow magic; if the idea behind Shadow magic is to deal extra damage for a brief period of time, the Focus meter ought to remain in place during Shadow magic regardless of whether or not I’m getting hit. The fear of losing my Focus caused me to really refrain from using Shadow magic a whole lot, because I was very hesitant to get aggressive.

The camera is fixed about 90% of the time, and works well. Camera angles are either fixed or on predetermined routes for just about every room in the game, and works extremely well; rarely did I find myself struggling for control with a reckless camera as I do in many third-person games such as Ninja Gaiden. Occasionally an enemy would retreat outside the range of view of the camera, and I would be caught waiting for its next attack, but these occurrences were rare.

The puzzles are arguably Castlevania’s strongest point. A good blend of traditional tile and lever puzzles mixed in with new, unique puzzle formats deliver some of the cleverest and most challenging puzzles this side of a Legend of Zelda dungeon; the pendulum and the music box puzzles in particular really stand out as unique challenges, and were all the more satisfying to conquer. Seasoned players may complain that the option to auto-solve the puzzles detracts from the challenge of the game (at the expense of a reward) but it simply exists as a means to make the already daunting game a bit more accessible to less experienced players. I solved every puzzle in the game without ever using a skip, but I will confess that a few of them really tempted me to opt out of it (I’m looking at you, Dr. Frankenstein’s tower…)

The platforming segments, while they are a great means to explore the gorgeous world and appreciate the elegant art of numerous vistas of the game, have much to be desired. Jumping, mobile platforms, pillars, scaling and rappelling walls are welcome distractions from scuffling with the game’s horrible monsters, but sadly fell way short of their potential. While the presence of platforming elements had me excited when I first started the game, the linearity and tedium of the movement in general put me out of good spirits. Climbing is slow and tedious, and is a real test of patience because scaling and maneuvering about a wall typically consists of a linear path that can be seen from quite a distance. I understand that franchises like Mario, Ratchet & Clank, and Mega Man have refined my taste for platform action, but finding redeeming factors in Castlevania’s mostly monotonous platforming is tough. Instead of spending my reflexes and curiosity, platforming portions simply examined my tolerance for boredom as Gabriel Belmont swung and sidled through ravine after ravine, ruin after ruin. As much as I wish I could say that Lords of Shadow relieved my bloodlust with challenging jumping, climbing, and swinging, I just can’t give it that credit; the best part about these interruptions is the opportunity to appreciate the scenic views.

Assuming the player is able to complete this gigantic quest, plenty of replay is available. Four difficulties and stage-specific challenges are present for those who really enjoy this game. The challenges range from mundane (complete a level without using Shadow magic) to intimidating (kill ten enemies in a row while under the effects of poison). In traditional Castlevania style, many upgrades and items are unattainable due to ability-related restrictions (behind walls, high ledges, etc) and can be paid a visit after upgrading to secure them. The mission-based layout adds some extra tedium to the backtracking process as each mission must be cleared for the upgrade to save, as opposed to the alternative open-world format which allowed a player to gain access to the upgrade after acquiring the appropriate ability.

All in all, Castlevania is a solid game. If you are a fan of the franchise I can’t promise that the departure from open-world castles will please you, nor the completely flat narrative, but the game is at least worth an investigation if not a purchase. Gamers who are new to third-person games will find a lengthy adventure awaiting them, with a good blend of action, adventuring, treasure hunting, and clever puzzles. While the lack of narrative development and hordes upon hordes of enemies will sometimes wear you down, this is a solid game that is easy to jump back into after taking breaks; believe me, I beat it over a period of five weeks. The game is functional, variety is present, and this is a grand timesink of a game if you are desperately bored, but I just can’t recommend it to the seasoned action/adventure player.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow receives a C lettergrade.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mandatory Update

Checking in to let you all know the skinny on my latest virtual endeavors, and my plans for future reviews and features.

Currently playing:
- Dragon Age Origins, on a second character
- Battlefield: Bad Company 2, eagerly awaiting Vietnam expansion
- Borderlands, leveling up a soldier-class character so that I needn't use my Hunter for Claptrap Revolution

- Hotel Dusk: Room 215, a unique puzzle-mystery game for DS
- Pokemon Pearl, because I gotta catch 'em all
- The World Ends With You, which I just started and played briefly
- Contact, an Atlus RPG although it's beginning to push my patience's limits

Since finals week is really kicking my ass, I'm guilty of not only a shortage of written material, but also gaming time in general. However, Christmas Break is fast approaching, and I will have an explosm of articles for your reading pleasure soon!! I would love to acquire the hardware necessary to produce video reviews, so hopefully my budget will allow for some exploration within that medium, assuming I can afford it.

Watch out for:

- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
- Borderlands
- Dragon Age: Origins
- Halo: Reach
- Battlefield: Bad Company Vietnam expansion
- Hotel Dusk: Room 215
- Contact

Also, I'll be doing an article on hype within the industry for MyIGNer leidyGaPa, and how it affected the reception of Castlevania: LoS.

- I'm considering doing a "Retro-Flection" in which I conduct a review of a game from platforms/generations past, and analyze how it holds up to today's standards. I would start out with the original Half Life for PC, and also possibly Streets of Rage 2.
- An article on how our age of entrance into gaming culture, and exposure to high-quality games of certain eras affects our perception of grandiosity and scale. The first thing that comes to mind is that most people born between 1986 and 1990 identify either Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy 7 as their favorite game; I will record my speculations on this and similar trends.
- The Nintendo DS, Wii, iPhone, and other unique platforms that use their own conventions to create memorable experiences, and why publishers oughtn't force first-person shooters and ports onto these platforms.

That's all for now. See you soon, assuming I survive until Saturday...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Most Breathtaking Moments in Gaming

Here, you'll have the pleasure of reading my gushing about some of my favorite moments in gaming. I was gonna use "Awesome" or "Artful" moments, but I think "Breathtaking" is the verbiage best-suited for my cause. A “Breathtaking Moment in Gaming” is defined by a few parameters, indicated as followed:

- Memorability; will I remember this scene/sequence in five or ten years, after I've completed another fifty to one hundred games?? Or, did I play the game five to ten years ago, and still clearly remember the scene??

- Description of the human condition; does this particular scene make a reflection on the plight of humanity?? Does it sympathize, or otherwise effectively address, the human struggle?? Does it resonate with the player's heart/conscience after they’ve effectively spilled buckets of enemies' blood and emptying thousands of rounds of ammunition??

- Redemption/Condemnation; does this scene carry with it a meaning deeper than what is portrayed?? Does it have a theme(s) that are typically involved with classical Literature or cinema??

This list operates outside of standard gameplay conventions. Awkward controls, inane objectives, and dated graphics are all riding backseat today to the human spirit's influence in producing great video games. I narrowed the list down to five, and I will be counting down in order of preference, with #1 being my personal favorite. Had I included my entire list of awesome moments, this article would suffer both from lack of readership and lack of focus.

Two disclaimers:
- These are moments in gaming that I find personally to be touching; little to no discussion/research has been involved in their selection, nor have I attributed their greatness to poll results from any published source.
- Despite being the gaming enthusiast I fancy myself to be, I have not played a great many games that are considered "classics," therefore my list will be void of moments from several games that millions of gamers hold close to their hearts.

I've successfully dodged all Kingdom Hearts games, most of the Final Fantasy series and Final Fantasy spin-offs, and all notable Playstation 3 and Wii games, just to name a few. This is not because I have a bias towards Microsoft and/or Xbox, but simply because my budgets of time and money over the past ten years have not allowed me to enjoy as many games as I truly would like to have played.

- Spoiler Warnings –

First, a few honorable mentions:

- Killing/Sparing Darko Brevic, Grand Theft Auto 4 (Xbox 360, 2008)
- Breaching the Citadel, Half Life 2 (Xbox, 2005)
- Conversation with Sovereign, Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)
- Invasion of the Normandy 2, Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- Landing Ultra Combos in Multiplayer, Super Street Fighter 4 (Xbox 360, 2010)
- First Emergence from Temple of Time as an Adult, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
- Dead Nicole, Dead Space (Xbox 360, 2008)

Breathtaking Moment #5 - Bird Colossus battle, Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, 2005)

Shadow of the Colossus is a truly unique game. It broke the mold when it first came out, introducing genre-bending gameplay, indefinable aesthetics, and a mysterious story. Critics and fans alike rave about this game, and it, quite daringly, brought a concept previously familiar only to fine art and artists to the gaming masses that can only be thought of as insane in the context of a videogame: minimalism. Gaming has always been a race to produce games that are more extreme, more exciting, more chaotic; Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan took a huge risk in keeping the game in such a tight focus: boss battles, light platforming, and exploration. Present only enough of a story to give the player a subject to drive the one objective.

While there is much to say about this game, one battle stands out from the rest: Colossus five, the bird. In a shape that can best be described as a flying crucifix, the "a-ha" moment that accompanies solving the puzzle of mounting this beast is immensely satisfying. The player, in his quest to slay sixteen giant beasts in a desolate land, must stab them in weak points, denoted on their bodies by magical, glowing insignias. The first four land lubbers are pretty self-explanatory, as are all but a handful of the beasts. When this beast came soaring on to the scene, my thoughts were optimistic, because I would just wait for it to land, jump on it, stab it, and move on to the next battle.

Much to my surprise, the beast will not land anywhere near me. The arena in question is a spacious, open lake, with only a handful of small temples, statues, and bunkers dotting the landscape in a (as I recall) symmetrical fashion. The menace perched atop towering obelisks, mocking my feeble body as I swam to safety again and again in my attempts to trick him in to landing. His primary method of dealing damage is to sweep down and in toward the player, slamming him with his stone-brimmed wings.

Only after an hour or so of deliberation and frustration was I able to mount the beast the only way I've ever figured out is possible - by jumping and grabbing onto the beast – mid flight. Only by jumping onto a tuft of fur on the innermost portion of the wing during the midst of his barrage was I able to latch onto my foe. My relief was short-lived however, because my foe immediately departed for the skies, and all the landscape I had become familiar with faded into the distance as I was dragged hundreds of feet into the air. As the beast writhed and flailed, I postulated that failure to manage my grip gauge efficiently would likely result in an instant death, and therefore, starting from scratch at the landing near the lake.

Clawing my way around the anatomical landscape of the Colossus, I managed to locate three weak points: the tips of the wings and right behind the head, on top of the neck. I clearly recall my heart pounding as my grip gauge slipped further and further into impotence, rendering me closer and closer to a virtual death, and a very real failure. Soaring through the sky elicits a dreadful sense of height, which is especially impressive given the limitations of the hardware on which it operated. Colossus five is a special breed of battle, one of the few that incurred in me a genuine sense of dread. I felt especially accomplished as they giant beast plunged into the lake with its dying breath.

Breathtaking Moment #4 - Underwater Hyrule, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Gamecube, 2003)

I’ll come right out and say that I took a solid three years to finish Wind Waker. Having cut my teeth on Ocarina of Time and later, Majora’s Mask, the “kiddie” style of Link and the cel-shaded environment as a whole really put me off. I must confess that losing interest in a game due to its art style is quite shallow, and once I overcame my ego and finally settled into the idea of playing a game whose surface appeals to a kindergarten class, I really sunk my teeth into the game. It only took three restarted games, but Wind Waker finally took hold of my urge for adventure and elegant puzzle-dungeons.

I still was a bit irked by the setting, though. I played Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and even played A Link to the Past on the GameBoy Advance for kicks, and after spending my adolescence tramping through overworlds that featured mountains, lakes, valleys, farms, fields, and other lush and intriguing landscapes, I quickly grew bored of sailing from island to island. While the islands themselves were intricate and held plenty of character, and the ocean gave a great sense of scale, the time-consuming journeys among the islands grew tiring.

Despite the feeling that the game desperately needed an overworld, I was waist-deep in Wind Waker when I was thrown on my head; in the quest for the Master Sword, the player is sent under the waves to the long-forgotten Hyrule Castle. Hyrule Castle, being sealed in a bubble, has the ocean surrounding it, and the rest of the Kingdom of Hyrule that I all came to know and love in our youth was submerged beneath the waves that I was growing accustomed to sailing upon!! Within the castle I faced a brawl with some of the toughest enemies of the game, and I was rewarded with a staple of the series: the Master Sword, which unsheathed with an elegant sheen. I remember feeling pity for the world which characterized the Nintendo 64 console for me, which is a rare feeling to be evoked from video games. From this moment on, the game had a real kick in the pants, and I plowed through it with great enthusiasm. Considering how Hyrule felt like a home with its familiarity, welcoming environments and memorable characters, the image of the kingdom in a state of indefinite suspension evokes feelings of alienation and loss.

Breathtaking Moment #3 - Rally Point Omega, Halo: Reach (XBox 360, 2010)

I must inform you that I carefully considered that the shock value of this game may still be reverberating in my heart, but I have chosen to include it, nonetheless. Halo: Reach maintains a dim and gloomy atmosphere while hope is the driving force to stay the course, and complete the mission at hand. The entire game revolves around the concept of sacrifice and loss, two themes that are rare in videogames, and near-absent from first-person shooters.

Rally Point Omega is the after-credit sequence of Halo: Reach. While Halo fans have been accustomed to a sneak-peek at some future iteration of the game, a mysterious cutscene, or a humorous bit of play, Halo: Reach did away with that tradition. In its place is a remarkable end-of-game sequence, and what is certainly a strong testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable opposition.

As previously mentioned, the campaign revolves around sacrifice. The player's squadmates on Noble team all end up making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, with most of the team expiring while looking their death straight in the eye and engaging in what was necessary to secure the objective at hand. Jorge, Carter, and Emile all wittingly and willfully faced certain deaths in their duty, which really propels the importance of the task at hand that ultimately falls on the shoulders of the player, Noble 6. Noble 6 successfully delivers "The Package" and protects Captain Keyes as he takes the precious cargo aboard the Pillar of Autumn.

The meaning of selflessness is really accentuated in the after-credit sequence. While seeing all of one's teammates sacrifice their lives to keep the mission alive and not lose hope, Rally Point Omega really brings the sacrifice of Noble Team to light. Noble 6, choosing to operate the MAC cannon from the ground to protect the Pillar of Autumn as it departs for outer space, is not able to escape planet Reach while the Covenant fully invade and "glass" the planet. The Pillar of Autumn takes off, the credits roll, and then players once again are behind the visor of Noble 6.

I checked the mission objectives: Survive. I immediately knew that this mission is never meant to be completed. I scrounge about for some new weapons, and the battle ensues. Elites, grunts, jackals and skirmishers circle around me. At first, the battle is manageable. However, the numbers of foes and their aggression and cunning increase and they gradually become an unstoppable force. The covenant fleet clogs the sky, dropships, banshees and spirits fly about freely, as they have no fear of resistance from the dwindling population of their now-conquered planet. After last-ditch evacuation attempts, the rest of the population has been laid to waste by invading armies or bursts of plasma from covenant warships. Soon, my helmet cracks, rendering the battle all the more one-sided as my visibility is drastically impaired. Soon, my shields and health expire, and Noble 6 throws his damaged helmet to the ground as the helmet-mounted camera records his last moments of struggling before the Elites surrounding finally put Noble 6 to death. By this time, I understand what it took to give humanity some hope, as did the rest of Noble team before me.

Breathtaking Moment #2 - Smothering Mary, Silent Hill 2 (PS2, 2001)

Silent Hill 2 is a gem of the video game market. Despite being part of a franchise, as a standalone title it rivals Shadow of the Colossus in terms of inimitability. It features slow, methodical gameplay and puzzles with vague hints and irrational solutions (coin puzzle, anyone?). Also, it’s the single most disturbing game I’ve ever played, both with respect to completely enveloping me in the eerie atmosphere, as well as with respect to content and themes. Bullying, murder, suicide, rape, incest, and terminal illness take center stage here. Cheap thrills and closet monsters ride backseat to brooding, mystery, dread and psychological fear.

The story is a bizarre one, with the widower, James Sunderland, being invited to a place of intimacy that he and his wife, Mary, shared before she passed away. The puzzling part that drives the entire game is that Mary has been dead for some time, and the letter addressed to James has been signed by Mary herself, and she invited him to visit her at their “special place,” being the hotel room they shared on a vacation.

Without going into great detail about the game, for sake of spoiling it, there are four real endings to the game, and they all play out the same. The player plays through the game, is scared as hell for eight to twelve hours, and lastly, something depressing happens. Although the game features more than one ending, the gameplay and plot do not deviate from base line at all, as the endings are dictated by the player’s interaction with a key character.

The plot’s mechanism revolves around James looking for his wife, and asking the handful of deranged cohabitants of Silent Hill if they know of her, or have seen her. These characters are all worthy of some deliberation in and of themselves due to their erratic behavior and seriously disturbing backgrounds. But all the same, James takes every moment that he can to reflect on how much he misses his Mary, and how confused he is about the origin of the letter sent to him from his dead wife.

Where Silent Hill 2 is likely to invoke horrible reactions out of some folks is during the home stretch of the game. James discovers a home video tape of his late wife that he recorded while they were on vacation. The touching video, which he views on a VCR in the room in which it was filmed, Mary elaborates on the splendid atmosphere and aesthetics of the town, and then begins coughing and it is revealed to the player that Mary is terminally ill – meaning, she is diagnosed with a disease that has no cure, and ultimately is fatal, i.e. cancer.

The game is daringly vague about plot, and no matter which ending is viewed, no substantial closure is provided. One thing is clear though: James smothered Mary with a pillow while she was lying sick on her bed. After Mary has her coughing fit at the end of the home video, the scene changes to a hospital room as James suffocates his wife, in an attempt to end her suffering. Certainly, the gravity of the home video has to be seen in order to really be appreciated.

This is the only game that I’ve played that really connects to the human heart with respect to suffering. Anyone who has ever seen a loved one in pain knows that it is dreadfully heartwrenching. Konami had the nerve, at the turn of the millennium, to make a game that revolves around this very personal theme. The game is open for interpretation, much like controversial endings in film or literature. I interpret it as follows: James’ act of killing his wife is an act of selfishness, because he could not bear to see Mary enduring such suffering. He killed her to end his own suffering instead of letting her stay with treatment in the hope recovering. Seeing as how it is a selfish act, the spirits of Silent Hill saw fit to punish James. Apparently he tricked himself into believing that she died directly as a result of the disease, the omnipotent town led him to the place he most associated with his happy marriage and forced him to confront his selfish denial.

Breathtaking Moment #1 – Killing the Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3 (PS2, 2005)

Metal Gear Solid is an outstanding game by itself. It could have ended with the traditional Metal Gear boss battle, involving ridiculous enemies with exaggerated powers and an onslaught of Metal Gear bipedal robot war machines, and it would have been a great game all the same. However, Kojima-san and company chose instead to dive into the realm of symbolism and art. Killing the Boss is as artistic and beautiful as it is gutwrenching and inevitable.

The Boss, appropriately named, is the final boss of the game. The battle carries much emotional weight with it, because the Boss is both the mentor of, and a mother figure to, the main character of the game. Seeing her defect to the enemies is as heartbreaking as it is confusing, especially as the cinematic cutscenes throughout the game display her tolerating the cruelty, greed and bigotry of her new team.

The battle itself takes place in an open field, with only a few fallen logs and a tree or two to provide cover. The circular arena is otherwise covered in beautiful, white wildflowers. The player is free to shoot the Boss, but she will only engage you in close-quarters combat (CQC) for reasons that are later disclosed. The combined applications of stealth, vigilance and reflex make for an exciting, fast-paced battle. Being lathered in beautiful, white flower petals make it feel all the more intimate. The real tear-jerker comes after the Boss’ stamina has been depleted.

After a moving cutscene in which the Boss lauds the main character for his loyalty to his country, praises him for his growth – both as a person and a soldier, and confides in him her last laments, she asks for the player to put her out of her misery. But this isn’t left to a cutscene – the player must actually pull the trigger on the controller. It is stamped on my mind like a bad memory, the image of Snake standing over the Boss, gun in hand, aiming at her head. I tried every possible button combination, and then stood; waiting for the screen to change but the image remained the same, waiting for my command. Finally, after what felt like hours of trying to change my fate, I gave in and dealt the Boss her death sentence, an unjust execution in the name of global peace. There is no other game on the market that forces such a heartbreaking confrontation on a player, and is therefore worthy of praise and commendation.

That’s it, folks. These are moments that stuck the sharpest knives in my throat. Agree?? Disagree?? Did a few touching memories from some of your favorite games come to mind as you read about mine?? Post in the comments section, or go ahead and start some discussion on Facebook!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Another year, another Call of Duty, another 20 million men between fourteen and forty years of age living out their inner bloodlust fantasies. Black Ops is the same old dance to a slightly different song, and there's plenty of content to enjoy here. Go ahead and skip to the multiplayer portion of the review if you so desire - it is highlighted a little further down the scrollbar.

Let's first establish this: if you, the reader, are not a fan of Call of Duty, the most recent iteration will not do much to please you. As previously mentioned, this game is more of the same. Compared to other franchises, it could more appropriately be labeled as an expansion pack to the CoD series than a sequel. We're still trotting through warzones, aiming down our sights, shooting, throwing grenades, and going prone when the screen is red. There is little departure here from what fans have come to expect.

The game looks good - as do most games on this generation of consoles. With a multi-million dollar budget, Treyarch has crafted sprawling vistas, cramped tunnels with roots hanging from the ceilings and mud on the floor, fiery explosions and beautiful plumes of smoke. Standard fare for action games, and well-polished. Vehicle sequences deliver satisfying sensations of speed, as well. I dare to say that this is the best-looking NVA/Russian murder simulator that has ever been released.

Characters look great, too. The attention to detail on the outfits of Woods, Bowman, Reznov and the whole crew would flatter the manufacturers of such fatigues. Some of the faces look a bit plastic, and Reznov's facial hair looks like it came from a dollar-store, but these are minor complaints, even to the critic's eye. From mud-smeared faces to the buttons on the pockets of your squadmates, there's a lot of eye candy to oogle at in between bouts of chaos. Lip-synching is well-timed, which is great considering the amount of orders a player will be taking from angry, impatient veterans.

Black Ops introduced a delightful storytelling mechanism to the CoD franchise. Instead of playing through a campaign in present-time, first-person narrative, the missions are introduced via a series of flashbacks. Alex Mason, the main character is under interrogation, and the game consists of playing through his memories, and the occasional mission from a squadmate's past. Some jazz about number sequences (that I won't spoil for you) and secret weapons keep things moving, but many of the missions felt tired by the end of the campaign because only a handful of missions really reveal anything substantial regarding the plot.

The plot in itself is nothing revolutionary, and basically gives a player a few good reasons to mow down multitudes of foreign faces. A few memorable missions are placed throughout with some regularity, but the plot unfolds at a very slooooooow pace. Also, the tie-in character from Treyarch's previous CoD game, World at War, gives the game a welcoming sense of familiarity. In terms of quantity of information, the whole plot could be written by hand in a few minutes, but no one purchased this game to question their goals in life - we wanna be blown away by visceral engagements and thrilling firefights.

Personally, the best part of the campaign, hands down, was the interrogation scene in the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) tunnels. Although, with respect to realism, the game hardly takes itself seriously, this scene really brought to life the inhumane torture practiced by the NVA and Viet Cong during the infamous Vietnam War. Being forced to play Russian roulette with your squad's leader, and then the subsequent daring escape from the rat tunnels really had my heart pounding.

Black Ops features an impressive variety of sound effects. Every gun has its own unique firing sound, every firing sound has a different tambre depending on the location from which it's fired. Tunnels, empty buildings, the great outdoors and cramped alleys all carry unique variations of the sounds of gunfire - an impressive feat for a game with over twenty unique weapons. The ejection and replacement of magazines during reloading animations all sound clean and crisp, and CoD's trademark "tat-tat-tat" of bullets tearing through fabric and flesh are all clear and present, and as welcome as ever.

I must say that Treyarch overjumped their destination, to my dismay. While it is obligatory for a game that takes place in a war zone to feature banging and booming all the live-long day, there were more than a few occasions in which I just kinda felt like a piece of meat getting bombarded by the sounds of gunfire and grenades more than the gunfire and grenades themselves. In all seriousness, I advise keeping this game at lower volume than players are accustomed to because of the sheer noise factor. At more than one occasion, my ears rang from the constant pounding and cackling of gunfire and explosions.

Additionally, there is one objective in particular, during a very particular mission, in which the sounds of enemy gunfire drown out some mission-critical information. The resulting confusion will incite frustration and rage in every one of you (the readers), as it has in every one before you, so you RUN DOWN THE HILL AND PRESS THE "USE" BUTTON ON THE THREE BARRELS to progress. Having revisited the mission, Mr. Woods indeed is very clear in his instruction, and even shows you an example of what must be done, he's just difficult to hear.


Here's what we came for. The price of admission is justified in the dozens of hours we'll be logging into this epic time-sink. Once again, if previous entries in the Call of Duty series didn't spring you, this one isn't likely to sweep you off of your feet. But in the likelihood that you do, go ahead and jump in - the water's warm.

Treyarch apparently listened to the legions of fans who inundated Activision's inbox with tales of frustration, rage, and trade-in ultimatums. Wisely, many issues of imbalance have been addressed, and make MW2 feel like the beta-version of this shooter.
Gone are the days of:
- Semi-automatic .50-cal rifle
- Dual Wield shotguns of any sort
- Noob Tube + Scavenger + Danger Close = infinite supply of tactical nukes
- Quick-dives
- Marathon + Lightweight + Commando = War zone ninja
- Carry-over kills from killstreaks

Actually, much to my surprise, taking Black Ops online is nowhere near as infuriating as the Modern Warfare 2 experience proved to be. Yes, it's still possible to corner camp, and yes, sometimes knife kills will charge right through a bullet to the chest, but other than that if it pissed enough people off, it has been fixed.

The infamous diving that some players would utilize to immediately go prone to dodge a volley of bullets has been addressed, as sudden changes in stance -especially from a sprint- are accompanied by a brief moment of impotence as the weapon is shifted about. Also, the grenade launcher attachment for assault rifles has been toned down with a much more drastic arc. Whereas the grenades from MW2's attachments flew in what can best be described as a derivative of a straight line, the grenades in Black Ops have a truly arc-like trajectory, which must be taken into account before firing, which makes cross-map instant kills less of a possibility, and taking some of the "n00b" out of the "n00b tube." I won't kid, the grenades are still a very potent part of an arsenal, but the inability to gain additional attachment grenades via scavenger, and the complete removal of the "Danger Close" perk (which amplified explosive damage and blast radius) has reduced the grenade launcher attachment from a game-changer to a useful tool; a change I'm sure many players are welcoming.

I must say that the maps are well-designed. Favoring -in order of preference- domination, team deathmatch, headquarters, and demolition, the maps I've played on have placed the objectives in areas that are, by and large, challenging to both assault and defend. Having objectives in the right regions of the maps discourages camping and makes the strategy of placing equipment less of a routine and more of a practice of experimentation. All the maps (with the exception of Nuketown) feature arenas to cater to all playstyles, which is delightful. Corridors, rooms, multi-tiered warehouses, hills, and open fields compose some fine maps for multiplayer antics.

A controversial change in direction is the use of CoD points as a form of currency to unlock weapons, attachments, and perks. Experience is still earned from playing games and all that that accompanies, and experience is used to level up. The major change here is that all perks and attachments are available from the get-go, allowing players to create classes to their liking as soon as they acquire the points to allow it.

Relative to previous CoD games, players will be arranging their favorite classes much, much sooner. No more waiting until level XX to get the perk you love so much, all it takes is a few games' worth of points. Not all is lost from the leveling aspect though, as all primary and secondary weapons are not available for purchase until their corresponding level is met. Overall, the use of CoD points to purchase weapons, attachments and perks is a great idea; the only drawback being that leveling-up does not give the player as much to look forward to. Thus, your personal feelings on using CoD points as opposed to the traditional system dictated primarily by level alone depends on your affinity for leveling up.

Here's the gist: Do you like Call of Duty games?? Do you have $60?? Then do yourself a favor and purchase Black Ops, there's lots of fun to be had with millions of other players on the servers, and you know what to expect. More of the same old song and dance, but if you like the tune, then go ahead and indulge.

Call of Duty: Black Ops gets a B lettergrade!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thoughts so far - Call of Duty: Black Ops

Having purchased the most recent iteration at the midnight release last week, it's fair to say that I was excited to play it. At first mention of it some months ago, I wasn't quite thrilled; but the more I read about it, the more I began to like it. That having been said, I preordered it after some sway and joined in the hype machine.

So far, it feels like a big improvement over Modern Warfare 2. If you've read my review on MW2, you'll recall that MW2 was a bit disappointing for me. Where MW2 featured every room full of bitches holding killstreak campfests, Black Ops discourages camping with a variety of design mechanisms - much to my delight. Also, the layout of the upgrading/unlocking scheme is a delight.

The shooting mechanics are largely unchanged from MW2 (And the first Call of Duty for that matter) which is fine. The slick and crisp shooting is a staple of the franchise, and has undoubtedly contributed to its success. Kills gained through killstreak bonuses add to the gross killcount for a game, but not to the immediate killstreak. For example, getting a kill with a bonus that requires eight kills does not grant the killstreak granted by nine consecutive kills. This encourages players to be active in the game, because they can't camp and hoard kills with devastating killstreaks. Needless to say, this is a positive change.

As much as Call of Duty players love to level up, some emphasis has been removed from it. Instead, CoD points are earned that are used to unlock perks, equipment and attachments - most of which are available from the get-go. Now, players engage in an economy of points instead of unlocking gear and perks at predetermined levels. I find this to be a superior layout, because I can accommodate to my particular tastes much sooner, letting me design classes to my liking as long as I spend my points wisely.

A full review ought to be around some time over break. So far, Black Ops is quite a mess of fun - as it ought to be.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reflections: Modern Warfare 2

Last night I popped in Modern Warfare 2 for the first time in months. With the advent of Black Ops upon us, and as a game I feel so passionately about (though not for necessarily flattering reasons), I felt that giving it a proper send-off was appropriate. I put another two hours on the game clock, bringing my total time spent in multiplayer to five days, five hours and change. In two hours of playing, I was reminded of many of the things that prevented it from being a great gameplay experience.

The multiplayer component of Modern Warfare 2 suffered from being too ambitious of a project. In an attempt to deliver everything that a player could want, the game simply delivered too much. From a gameplay perspective, players are spoiled by the sheer quantity of choices they have, and the endless permutations thereof. However, it is important to note that the game is built from a rock-solid engine, and feels tight and fast no matter how hectic the gameplay becomes or how many players crowd a lobby.

Call of Duty games have always had a distinct feel to them, even as the series continually evolves with the gaming landscape. Responsive controls, quick animations, hard-hitting sound effects and a strong visceral element that accompanies aiming down a weapon's iron sights all contribute to keeping the game fresh for hours on end, even after terrible losses. From the staccato yelps of the submachine guns, to the booming bass of the SPAS-12 shotgun, and even on to the soft pitter-patter sound of bullets tearing through fabric and flesh, all Call of Duty games have a strong and extensive library of soundclips to produce joy out of the simple task of firing a virtual gun. Aiming down sights, going prone, crouching, and running are all very responsive and prevent the player from blaming his death on some flawed element of gameplay.

Also, the game is fast. Kills happen quick, coming under fire is unforgiving, armor is nonexistent, and a player can switch his class, his weapon loadout and respawn before he has a chance to get angry and sulk. A wide range of powerful weapons which rarely require more than four bullets (which with most of the weapons being fully automatic, is practically instantaneous) to execute a kill ensure that the game stays fast and hectic. Aim assist is even present to help nail moving targets, as if a wide array of powerful weapons is insufficient. Furthermore, if an explosion occurs anywhere near you, don't count on surviving it because they have an impressive kill radius. Health is practically a non-issue, and regenerates back to 100% within about five seconds provided a player can stay out of the fight for that period. Health becomes a non-issue though, because the majority of times that a player gets shot, they're as good as dead, making health and damage an arbitrary sort of indicator that says "Hey, get ready to respawn."

Sadly, for every step forward regarding fundamental elements of gameplay, Modern Warfare 2 slowly treads backwards. The extensive combinations of perks and equipment turn an otherwise effective shooting game into a contest which will typically result in a victory for players who are most willing to sacrifice their dignity for a good kill/death ratio. These combinations include -but are not limited to- the following:
- Akimbo shotguns/stopping power/sleight of hand, which gives players the power
to fire two shotguns simultaneously while reloading with
near-instantaneous swiftness.
- Marathon/Lightweight/Commando/tactical knife, which empowers players with
dramatically increased running speed, increased instant-kill melee attack
range, unlimited sprint, and the ability to use melee attacks at about
twice the normal frequency.
- Heartbeat sensor, which allows players to see the locations of all units, with
distinction between friendly and opposing forces, within about ten in-game
meters. This weapon-mounted attachment constantly feeds a player with
critical battlefield intelligence without requiring them to take their
eyes off the battlefield. One can go undetected by heartbeat sensors with
the "Ninja" perk activated, which is of course at the cost of another
unique ability.
- Scavenger/Danger Close/Grenade/Rocket launcher, regardless of whether the
explosive is a secondary weapon or an attachment, scavenger gives the
player practically infinite ammo, assuming they can run over a dead
body or two during their exploits to resupply on their explosive rounds.
The idea of infinite explosive rounds isn't such a bad idea, but the
explosive rounds all have an incredible kill radius, and Danger Close
expands the kill radius, making these weapons of choice rather than
tactical tools to nail bothersome campers or provide effective cover.

While many of these perks and equips provide an effective advantage to suit a particular style of play, and can be critical for counteracting an opposing team's strategies, in certain combinations they encourage gameplay that spoils the online experience for friends and foes alike. No one wants to play with a camper whose sole desire is to get impressive killstreaks, nor does anyone want to play against such a person; and both of these cases are especially for objective-based games. With killstreak bonuses such as attack choppers, gunships and fly-by-wire Predator missiles coming in at five or more kills in a row, these bonuses pretty much encourage camping - especially since attaining prerequisite killcounts with each killstreak awards a player with emblems, titles, experience points, and bragging rights.

Expanding upon the idea of attaining online decoration for getting lots and lots of killstreak bonuses, players are rewarded for attaining landmark quantities of kills for all weapons and while using certain perks and equipment, such as "kill one thousand enemies with x weapon" or "kill five hundred enemies with x perk activated." This idea by itself is fine, but many players resort to using the same weapons and sets of equipment ad nauseum despite how their tactics may be mismatched for the map or the tactics of players on the other team. With titles and emblems with which to decorate one's online persona, experience points to help level up, and bragging rights hinging upon the acquisition of these arbitrary killcounts, there is a lot at stake and a lot of players go overboard and fail to help out their teammates by pursuing these awards.

I believe it is reasonable to assume that some of the millions of players of Modern Warfare 2 are willing to overlook their frustrations with the game for the sake of their prestige level. This brings up one of Modern Warfare 2's key hooks, which continually brings people back, firing up the game for some more kills and a few more levels. Leveling up and unlocking weapons and gear is an undeniably rewarding experience, and it is only until one recognizes that they are playing the game only to level up and gain prestige that they will recognize that this game has some serious faults that, when properly (improperly??) exploited, can deprive a match of its fun.

The single-player campaign is a bloodthirsty romp through a variety of geography, providing an equal-opportunity bloodbath through underprivileged neighborhoods and military bases alike. It is no slouch in spectacle, and is a fun ride, but it is ultimately forgettable. Over-the-top presentation accompanies firefights with a multitude of weapons not only at the ready, but also ready to be pried from the dead hands of rebels, mercenaries, and rogue military agents. Surely, a welcome addition to the game is the breach-and-clear sequences, in which players blow open doors or walls and then have a limited time in slow-motion to eliminate all the threats in the room, lest innocent lives be lost. Breach-and-clear sequences are among the most exciting portions of the game, hands down. The campaign is divided into missions, each providing a firefight that progresses linearly until the end of the level.

The narrative is a forgettable plot involving typical brands of evildoers threatening the masses, and the few protagonists of the game feature no character development to speak of. The only mechanisms which move the plot along are various acts of terrorism and the military response to such actions. Characters' involvement and reactions to the plethora of disasters afflicting their home country are hardly recognized. I must note, however, that the plot hardly takes itself seriously. This is not meant to be a political commentary wrapped in a first-person shooter, and the plot never aspires to be more than a reason mow down hordes of angry men while using high-powered weaponry. The plot is a weak device, although I must say I prefer a campy plot to a story that is convoluted and tries to convey a serious message but utterly fails.

A redeeming point of the single-player game is the variety of locales in which one does battle. Shantytowns, jungles, enemy bases, American suburbs, internment camps, mountains of Arabia and Washington D.C. are all represented, and keep the action fresh with a new coat of paint for every level.

In place of World at War's Nazi Zombies cooperative mode is Special Ops. A series of challenges that are best when played with a friend, these two-player challenges take settings from the game and turn them into everything from on-rails vehicle missions to arena-style elimination games. These are quite entertaining, and deserve special credit with how they encourage players to work together to conquer otherwise overwhelming odds; especially on veteran difficulty.

Overall, Modern Warfare 2 deserves to be tried. It is a "noob-friendly" game, allowing people with only moderate exposure to gaming to log in and get a respectable quantity of kills after becoming acclimated with the control scheme. Your level of involvement with the multiplayer depends on your affinity for rank-ups and arbitrary symbols with which to adorn your online alter-ego. It's not for everybody, it's not for me, but a lot of players continue to be entertained by its frenetic pace, contemporary setting, realistic weapons, and near-limitless potential for earning awards. Having personally spent over one hundred hours playing Modern Warfare 2's online multiplayer, I'll be the first to tell you that it's quite addictive, but I also must inform you that sadly, it's also quite shallow.

Modern Warfare 2 gets a C lettergrade.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Achievements, Their Ilk, and What They Mean to the Culture

My XBox gamerscore is 33,055. This score is representative of the hundreds (thousands??) of hours I've spent playing games on the XBox 360. For those who may not be familiar with achievements, trophies, or any similar performance-based reward system, all XBox games (and now, all PS3 games) have achievements that can be unlocked and permanently fixed to your profile if their conditions are met. For XBox profiles, each achievement corresponds to a numerical score, with more challenging or time-consuming achievements typically harnessing a higher score. Typically, high-profile achievements will unlock fifty to one hundred gamerscore, with every game shipping with a maximum of one thousand. Playstation games unlock Trophies, which are very similar to Achievements, except on a different console, and some Steam games have seen the implementation of achievements.

To put this into some perspective, beating Halo: Reach by oneself on the hardest difficulty will unlock an achievement worth one-hundred twenty-five gamerscore. By contrast, in Halo 3, killing ten enemies with headshots during a campaign mission is worth five gamerscore.

Achievements are an interesting introduction to this generation of gaming. Many gamers find themselves chasing after these achievements, with their tasks ranging from the grandiose (Seriously 2.0 - Gears of War 2) to the mundane (My Brother's an Italian Plumber - Borderlands). Gamers' fixation with unlocking achievements and trophies vary from player to player, and some players hardly acknowledge them at all. Some players are looking to increase their gamerscore and some gamers are completionists, and when playing a game simply wish to leave nothing unexplored.

Achievements have no tangible reward. A high gamerscore and a high rate of unlocking gamerpoints-per-game earn no special recognition, no early access to betas or demos, no discounts, no certificates, no printouts, no special esteem. They simply exist to be earned, displayed, and impart bragging rights. Given their lack of utility, it is interesting that they have surpassed the point of being a temporary fad, and that the implementation of unlockable achievements has taken over the industry in the past few years.

There is good reason to believe that the idea of unlocking achievements preys upon an internal, natural desire to see things through to completion. Many games have even implemented non-gamerscore related achievements and unlockable features into their games. The Call of Duty games have an abundance of multiplayer-related tasks that can be completed, called "Challenges." "Challenges" unlock points, which contribute towards leveling up one's online profile, unlocking weapons, icons and special abilities. Killing a specified number of enemies with a certain weapon, conditionally using a certain ability, and completing objectives all go towards unlocking challenges which help one level up and gain access to more gear and weapons, and the process repeats itself. Modern Warfare 2, the most recent (as of this writing) addition to the CoD franchise featured challenges with near-astronomical requirements, demanding dedication and repetition while playing, although enough variety in the challenges are present to cater to just about every style of play.

So you may be wondering by now what I'm trying to accomplish by pointing out Call of Duty's expansive opportunities for leveling up... the point is that the general populace of gamers, which may be representative of the population at large, love to see progression. We love to see filling bars, growing meters, and swelling numbers. Many of you are likely familiar with the "Prestige" option in the Call of Duty games. For those of you who are not in the know, when a player hits the highest possible level in CoD's online multiplayer, they're given the option to brand their online profile with a shiny new insignia, representing their elite rank and dedication to the game. The catch?? All weapons are re-locked, challenges are reset, and experience is reset to zero, and the player can begin the process of leveling up anew.

The fact that so many player choose to gain prestige at the cost of hours of work unlocking new weapons and gear basically proves that we love to see progress, and a parallel point is that we hate to see all those points and experience towards nothing as we sit atop the level cap.

Achievements prey upon the axiom of our completionist inclinations and it has affected the gaming industry in a few ways. Whether an achievement is a positive influence or a negative influence on a gameplay experience -and the industry at large- depends solely on how they're implemented into the game.

Achievements will positively affect a game if they reward the player for overcoming significant obstacles and trying things they normally would not bother to attempt. In these cases, the pursuit of gamerscore is a reward in itself in that a player will experience more of the game for themselves and therefore have a better perspective on the game as a whole. Mass Effect had a good achievements placed in it, with a good bit of them being unlocked through the natural progression of the game. Events like beating bosses, clearing levels, and beating the game all unlocked some achievements, and anyone who enjoyed the game enough to beat it will see the bulk of these added under their profile. However, achievements also encouraged the player to play through the game with different party members, use different weapons and to use the different special abilities that were with each of six unique classes. I can personally attest that I played through the game with the Infiltrator as my class, and ended up enjoying the special abilities that are special to that particular class quite a bit. If not for the achievements of using some class-exclusive abilities, I likely would have started another new game as a Vanguard.

Badly placed achievements are more variable in their repercussions than well-placed achievements. Poorly-implemented achievements can even negatively affect others' experience of the game if multiplayer achievements are mishandled. Some achievements are tedious, and if completed, yield no great reward. Hours and hours of gameplay to complete a mundane task is less than commendable, and is rewarded as such, and these are likely to be ignored by players. The worst sort of achievements encourage unsportsmanlike conduct in online arenas. Because of the nature of these achievements, players are discouraged from teamwork and cohesion for the sake of inflating their gamerscore.

A prime example of poorly-handled multiplayer-related achievements are the achievements in the original Gears of War. An achievement is unlocked each time a player earns their hundredth kill with any given weapon. This sounds innocent enough, but many games revolved around teammates struggling with each other for control of the power weapons, instead of supporting each other for the team's victory. And one hundred online kills in Gears of War means a lot more than one hundred online kills in most modern shooters, so it was a real time sink and demanded a lot of attention. Personally, I only netted a few of them before I concluded that they encouraged unsportsmanlike conduct and were too much of a hassle to see their unlocking.

Personally, I feel like some gamers put too much emphasis on unlocking achievements, and that they are not enjoying a game as they best could be. Achievements ought to be cut down to just a handful of tasks that unlock in-game items or abilities. I believe an ideal achievements system would include five to ten performance-based achievements, and each of them unlocked a special costume for the character, a special game mode, special weapons, concept art of the game and videos of the development team during the project. Ultimately, achievements, trophies, and gamerscore are placeholders for spare time. They could disappear altogether and I wouldn't lament too much. From the looks of things, though, they are here to stay. As long as they're around, however, they need some revision before they become recognized as rewarding pursuit, and worthy of the time and effort they require to be earned.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The New "It" Thing: Console Multiplayer- An Old Note

I posted this as a note as a means to incite discussion during the summer of 2009. It was a success. Although the games mentioned in here have all since been sequel-ized, the topic is still pertinent and interesting. See if you agree with my stance...

IGN recently posted an article about how Halo 3 is currently the most-played game on XBox Live on a day-to-day basis. http://xbox360.ign.com/articles/101/1013671p1.html
Now, in addition to this, Halo 3, Modern Warfare, and World at War have been vying for dominance each since their release. Both Gears of War games have had a significant presence online as well.
The purpose of this note is for you to voice your preference in online-shooter genre.

I am working on my fourth prestige in Call of Duty World at War, I played Gears of War 2 online nearly exclusively for the first five months of it's release. I have hundreds of online EXP in Halo 3 as well as shameful quantities of time in Halo 2 over the years.

Now, as a veteran of all three of the most popular franchises on XBox Live, I personally find that Halo 3 delivers the most satisfying and rewarding experience. Here is a list, in no particular order, of why I arrive at this conclusion.

1: Skill-based victory. I find that Halo 3 most rewards its skilled players and encourages people to improve their tactics with time and experience. This includes factors like...
Skill in accuracy- actually hitting your target. While every shooting game of COURSE emphasizes accuracy, Halo 3 puts the most emphasis on it. Call of Duty lets people get away with "spray & pray" tactics **cough**MP40**cough** which means someone can essentially run into a room with the trigger pulled, aim in the general direction of a foe, and get a kill or two or three. Also, shotgun battles are way too emphasized in Gears of War. A shotgun battle basically involves two people shooting a shotgun and dive-rolling laterally. It takes a lot of emphasis away from using the tactics brought forth by the rest of the weapons in that game.
I find that Halo 3, kill-for-kill, most rewards being able to aim at your target and pull off a clean kill, regardless of the weapon.
Tactics- not running out into the map and getting double-teamed time-and-time again, and similarly, working with your team double-teaming your opponents. I have found that Gears of War most rewards players who work together, so I must give Gears the title for being best co-operative experience in competitive, online gameplay. Working as a pair in Call of Duty often enough leads to a double kill, because whoever finds one of you likely found both of you. Halo 3 falls right in the middle of the two, because working together definitely is advantageous, but not quite as potent as it is in Gears of War. Also, depending on the use of grenades, rockets and other explosives, you and a friend may very well meet your demise simultaneously, but this also gives a player the capacity to score double kills :-)

2: Cohesion among teammates. I have to admit that working together is equally satisfying in Gears of War as it is in Halo. Both games feature gameplay that rewards thoughtful collaboration. The excitement of securing power-weapons and controlling sections of the map with brute force and planning is successful because of the communication amongst the team. That is to say that communication makes a game more exciting. While rolling around a map two-at-a-time is directly more efficient in Gears of War, communication and general teamwork are key in both of them.
I find that working together in Call of Duty is restricted because of the frantic pace of the game; more specifically the low hit-to-kill ratio (2-4 shots to kill) and the ability to start the game with any class the player desires.

3: Incentive to play. Call of Duty blows the other two franchises away with the leveling-up and prestiging option, as well as the new weapon you acquire as you climb the ranks. Halo 3 gives us new armors and keeps our EXP (basically, one's win record) on public display. Playing online in Gears of War recently implemented a level-up system with capacity to DE-LEVEL (yes, just like Halo 2!!), but honestly it's just too late for me to care.

4: Objective games. Gears of War, in my opinion, has the most enjoyable objective-based game modes. Submission, Annex, Guardian and King of the Hill all offer unique and (mostly) enjoyable games. Running a close second is Halo 3 with Assault, Capture the Flag, team Oddball, and a plethora of other run-of-the-mill (but effective nonetheless) game modes.
Call of Duty drops the ball with producing enjoyable objective-based games. While it finally entices us you use our otherwise dormant special grenades, it's just not as enjoyable as doing hit-and-runs and pick-ups in Warthogs and controlling the Annex point in Gears of War. From the albeit brainless Headquarters to the tactical War, many Call of Duty games turn into a skilled, collaborative team running out the clock for the sake of killing your team as many times as possible. Search and Destroy is a unique offering, though.

5: Incentive to play together. This is different from "Cohesion among teammates." While "Cohesion" deals with working together in a game with your team, this refers to your incentive to pair up with people in the first place, be they from the game you just played or from your friends list.
While I prefer to partner up every time I go online, I most prefer to play with people on Halo. The fact that the power weapons carry a TON of momentum and working together is so effective makes me want to make sure that I'm not working with a bunch of tards.
In the same vein, in Halo and Gears of War, you're playing to WIN. COMPETITION is the keyword in Halo and Gears of War. Call of Duty has WINNING riding in the backseat, with "Leveling Up" in the driver's seat and "Completing Challenges" riding shotgun. As cool as it is to have a leveling system, it's affecting online play almost as negatively as the first Gears of War's online-only weapon-based achievements (100 kills with each weapon), and it takes the competitive edge away from the game. The drive to win is almost absent, and no one really cares as long as they personally had a decent performance. Match bonuses aren't nearly different enough between winning and losing to entice someone to care about actually winning a match.

6: Consistency. Halo 3 has the most balanced weapon set. Are some overpowering? Yes, but you have to be good to use them all the same. Except the rocket launcher, but that's the point of a weapon that only has 2 or 4 shots every time it spawns in. Halo 3 has me screaming "That's BULLSHIT!!" into my headset mic a lot less than the other two do.
Call of Duty features a weapon, unlocked at level 10 (out of 65) called the MP40. It is the most powerful and versatile weapon in the game, and it's also broken as hell. Equally effective at 200 yards as it is at 2 yards, and with more ammo in a clip than most of the guns in the "Heavy Machine Gun" class (not counting the double clip option) the MP40 is arguably the only gun you need for the rest of the game.
In both Gears of War games, everyone starts with a shotgun. While the capacity to be slowed while running about the level if you're under fire is present in the second one, it doesn't to much to balance the issue of players relying on dive-rolling and open-sight shooting to win the day. The fact that this is arguably the most effective method of combat is indicative of some serious balance issues.

Now, on a side note, many people cite Call of Duty's "realism" as the reason they prefer it. While I certainly don't care who prefers one game or another, I need to address the fallacy in calling Call of Duty a realistic game.
The only standout realistic thing in the game is the fact that you can shoot someone two or three times and they die. This is offset by the fact that no one is ever wounded (i.e. impaired aiming and/or movement), and that you are back at 100% 5-8 seconds after you get out of harm's way.
Also arguing against realism is the accuracy of a gun. I can hit someone across the map with a light armament, like the Thompson submachine gun the same way I can with a 30-caliber rifle: just by aiming down the sights. While this is understandable and expected of the semi-automatic and bolt-action rifles of the game because of their power, it shouldn't be happening with the lighter guns. Especially pistols.
Bullets fall, just like every other free-moving body. Falling is not taken into account in Call of Duty.
Guns kick - A LOT. Have you every actually fired one? Shooting the M1 Garand or Gewehr 43 four times in a second's timespan and having the shots land all within a few in-game inches from each other is nonsense. It is equally nonsensical when letting a hail of fire rip from one of the game's many machine guns and having your sights move just a few degrees from their starting point. Nonsense. Unrealism.
Now am I saying the game's not fun? Of course not! There's a reason I'm going through the 65 levels for my fifth time...it's ton of fun to play. It's just not realistic.

Now if you just skipped all my nerdgasming, I prefer to play Halo 3 online instead of Call of Duty or Gears of War. How about you?

The New "It" Thing: Your Mom Plays Games

"Casual" gaming is a phenomenon by which demographics that do not normally care to play games become regular gamers. Regular could mean with friends, before bed, after dinner, on the weekends, during lunch breaks, or every day. Also, casual gaming means that the player has a very narrow perception of the gaming industry and gaming culture at large. If a player is so heavily involved with a Facebook game that they spend multiple hours per day on it, but this is the only thing they play, they are a casual gamer. If someone plays two hundred franchise years of Madden every year, but that's the full extent of their gaming, they are a casual gamer.

Now that "casual" has been clearly defined within the context of gaming, let's get on to the pressing issue: casual gaming is the new cash-cow of the gaming landscape. For some, this is of no concern because they have no interest in casual-style games. For others, this is a sign of changing times and great worry, because the gaming enthusiasts are no longer the core audience for many publishers. Free-to-play games dominate social websites like facebook, and more still are found on many free-to-play websites.

Casual gaming seemed to creep into the gaming landscape in the early 2000's with the launch of websites like addictinggames and newgrounds. Suddenly, parents, teachers and other professionals were playing games for free, from their web browser, and having a good time about it. Launching animals and other objects, falling columns of multi-colored jewels, bouncing balls and pinball machines were lighting up millions of browsers, and a fad was born.

I believe Nintendo was the first major-league gaming company to take note of this phenomenon, and take appropriate steps to capitalize on the newfound curiosity and urge to game that crept into the consciousnesses of millions of non-gamers. The Nintendo DS was released with, and continues to be supported by, a multitude of games aimed towards older people, professionals, women, and other typically non-gaming demographics. Brain Age, Big Brain Academy, Sudoku are just for starters... the DS is a playground for publishers trying to make the next big hit with the out-crowd, and unfortunately, the Wii has turned into a similar conduit for such "shovelware."

As previously mentioned, many of us gaming enthusiasts with a passion for gaming and playing many kinds of games are concerned because games can now be commercially successful and rake in millions of dollars for the right party without fancy graphics, cutting-edge engines, or years of development by a dedicated team. A few guys in a garage can now feasibly crank out an iPhone game that will sell millions and millions of times with the right combination of gimmick and accessibility. As such, many gamers are worried about being left in the dust of the fiery, money-spewing chariot that is casual gaming.

The most recent developments in the race for dominance of the casual gaming market are PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect. Each of these peripherals are fully-functional with each company's currently supported console. The PlayStation Move is attempting to capitalize on the disappointing aspects of Nintendo Wii. Sporting a nearly-identical motion-sensitive controller, Move claims to be very sensitive to player movements, giving it more applications than sports and party games. Kinect is doing away with controllers altogether, utilizing hardware that recognizes bodily movement and photo-recognition.

Regardless of which is the superior platform, one thing is sure: casual gaming is a gigantic base of people, waiting to be exploited to buy millions of units of hardware and software alike, and therefore spending much of their money. Given the escalating quantities of killer games in the past six or so years during the fall season, 2010's fall lineup of heavily-advertised and hyped games consist largely of games that are exclusively for use with the motion-control peripheral.

Enthusiasts' worries are justified that they may fall from grace as the crowd to please, only to be replaced by their mothers, little sisters, and grandparents.

Reflections: Shank

Shank was first advertised as an up-and-coming game a few months ago(at E3 2010, I think), and I was immediately intrigued. It has a cartoon-style art direction and crisp, clean and fast movements. Smart platforming action and combat that demands clean maneuvering and quick reflexes looking to be part of this winning recipe, so I had been following this game for months up until its release.

Shank delivers. At 1200 Microsoft Points pretty much everything is overpriced, but Shank delivers; especially if one plays through on the unforgiving hard difficulty. The stages are either platforming levels or boss battles, and all are high-quality entertainment - all killer, no filler. While there are no levels that stand out as particularly memorable, this is more a testament to the consistently fun and challenging level design than a lack of jaw-dropping moments.

The game plays out like the side-scrolling action-platformers of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras of console gaming. Platforming includes dodging environmental hazards, bottomless pits, climbing, wall-running, swinging to and from appropriate ledges and other feats of acrobatics. The feel is very much like that of a two-dimensional take on the Prince of Persia games from a few years ago. All movements are very smooth and intuitive, and regularly-placed checkpoints ensure that the more challenging platforming sequences are minimally frustrating.

Shank's combat is very fast and smooth. A variety of enemies keep things fresh and challenging as they implement a variety of tactics and weapons to dispose of their renegade nemesis. All the modern brawling mechanics are here: weak and strong attacks, alternate weapons, ranged weapons, grappling and dodging. Some may consider Shank's lack of inventive mechanics a shortcoming, I must address that what is present is very intuitive, and very user-friendly. Every challenge can be overcome with nimble maneuvers and quick wits, and every death is the player's own fault (save for just a few sequences that involve random explosives raining from the sky).

The boss battles are definitely a standout feature for Shank. The boss battles again pay tribute to the platformers of old, as they follow the model of memorizing a pattern, reacting to telegraphed attacks, and survival. Every boss features a unique moveset, which is actually surprising considering the quantity of boss battles present in the game. Every boss is challenging, and "cheap" kills are kept to a minimum - Ninja Gaiden this isn't.

If Shank has any one feature that will separate it from the crowd, that feature is its visuals. A cartoon with intense colors and thick outlines reminiscent of some old cartoon-network programs like Dexter's Lab and Samurai Jack are the style of Shank. Even the gloomier, warehouse-style levels are booming with saturated colors, and demand your immediate attention. Also, all the characters, from the standard enemies to the bosses all have unique appearances. A handful of character models for each class of enemy prevent the screen from filling with clones, and this variety makes the game that much more visually appealing. Shank moves about the environments with ninja-like finesse, and the manners in which the player can dispose of foes are range from standard brutality to "DID YOU SEE THAT??!" awesome gorefests.

For those who are so enthralled with Shank's style and playability, such as myself, Hard mode offers the same exact game with amplified damage, more enemies, and NO CHECKPOINTS. That's right, die and start at the beginning of the level. Thankfully, (and mercifully) boss battles count as separate stages. Whew....

Shank is a great change of pace in a generation that floods the market with shooters. It's crisp visuals are a stark contrast to the post-apocalypse trend, and it's fluid gameplay is a throwback to our younger days, but it still includes some mechanics unique to this era. At 1200 Microsoft Points, it's a bit steep, but watch for this one on sale. It deserves your attention, and you deserve to play it.

Shank gets a B lettergrade.

Reflections: Mass Effect 2

Having beaten Mass Effect 2 about a week ago, it's time to dish out some reflections...

The original Mass Effect was given to me as a gift for Christmas '08 (represent, P-Shade) and it ended up being my favorite game! I never would have purchased it on my own because it's all about aliens, and spaceships, and lasers, and stuff I never really care to get involved with. However, when someone gives me something for free, I'm at least a little inclined to try it out, and then I got hooked.... and I played through six times in a year's time.

Mass Effect 2 (hereafter referred to as ME2) changes a lot of the things that I found gave Mass Effect 1 its identity. Not to mislead, they're not all complaints, but observations about profound changes in gameplay and mechanics.

First, the story is splendid. The story that absolutely hooked me and drew me in is done justice. The fact that the game permits you to do so many things in your own taste (via conversation wheel) and still has such depth just makes me giddy! There are probably 25 major choices that you make throughout the game, and they all have some kind of effect on the story and characters.

Destroying the Normandy in the first 10 minutes of the game?? Awesome. Resurrecting Shepard, and putting him at the whim of a radical, pro-humanity, xenophobic terrorist organization?? Also awesome. Collector invasion of the Normandy?? Yeah, it just happened. Being put under Cerberus for the length of the game puts ME2 in such a different tone than the first one. In the first one, you're a Spectre; basically a private investigator who doesn't answer to the law. Although you can choose to be a "paragon" or a "renegade" depending on how you make your choices, you always get the feeling you're doing things for the best interest of the galaxy, for all species. ME2 ditches the "good guy" feeling, and the whole game, with respect to the moral choices, is played in shades of gray. For every choice, there are winners and losers. Although characters can understand the importance of your mission, they view you with a suspicious light because you're an agent for Cerberus, instead of an Alliance captain, or a Spectre. I love movies and stories where good people are put in bad situations, and ME2 is just that kind of plot.

The revelations toward the end of the game, and the tie-ins with the novels are insane. On the Collectors' ship I almost went nuts with the magnitude of the plot twist. However, it should be noted that ME2 does plot twists with class, which I appreciate. It surprises, but never really jumps over the fence entirely. Some games (especially RPG's) treat plot twists like recycled boss fights, as in they're just thrown in to keep the player around longer. ME2 includes some truly stunning revelations, with some Hollywood-quality production behind them, but they aren't happening at every turn of the script, and they aren't used as an excuse to make the player backtrack.

Oh, and your squad. I love the new squadmates. There are like eleven of them, and they're all unique with respect to both function and story. The squad from ME1 was great, and they are all memorable characters (except Kaiden). However, ME2 takes the squad mechanic and makes it AWESOME because they all have their own recruiting missions to acquire them, and they all have their own missions to complete to gain their loyalty. Also, these missions expand upon all their stories, and are all-around memorable. Garrus is still the most badass, though.

Game-play wise, everything feels smoother. Yes, it feels like Gears of War... but Gears of War feels better than the original Mass Effect. Taking cover happens quicker and cleaner, popping out to shoot baddies and own them with tech/biotics is lickity-split! I like how there are a TON of abilities, and a TON of characters to use them. Unlike ME1, a specialist in one field will not be able to use all the talents of that field. This helps keep squad-selection dynamic and fun, because there are always people with different abilities to use.

If I have one complaint with the game, it is the dumbing-down of the level-up system. While I understand that it streamlines the RPG elements, it takes away some of the specialization that the first one boasted. For example, in ME1 skills for each weapon class could be upgraded, resulting in better accuracy and higher damage counts. At the same time, each talent (biotic/tech abilities) could be upgraded in the same manner. This allowed for a lot more specialization, especially early on.

In ME2, all weapon-related upgrades are filtered under one upgradeable attribute, and talents each have their own upgrades. This isn't a bad system, it's just a little generic after having played the first one so thoroughly.

One hot point of debate on which I can't really make up my mind is the lack of Mako missions, and addition of planet-scanning. For me, this is a trade-off. I favor the new system, but I can't really justify the tedious nature of planet-scanning for minerals. While I enjoyed side-questing and driving the Mako of the first one, it did get repetitive and predictable. There were only minor variations of the same mercenary base for the side-missions. ME2 completely renovates the planets, and every side-mission looks unique and has a distinct layout, which is AWESOME! However, planet-scanning for minerals.... I just can't see why it was necessary to kill the pace of the game with such a tedious way of obtaining materials with which to upgrade your squad and your ship.

Mass Effect 2 is amazing, and you, the reader of this blog, should play it for yourself. Mass Effect 2 gets an A lettergrade!!

Reflections: Street Fighter 4

Super Street Fighter 4, at the time of writing, is the most fun I've had with a fighting game, and arguably the most fun I've had with a single game in a long time. I mean a loooonngg time. Simply put, it is just a joy to play.

I think that one of the things that makes SSF4 so great is its uniqueness. The developers were not bound to the conventions and restrictions of reality. The fighters can all do crazy moves and are spectacularly agile by realistic standards. The special moves are absolutely ridiculous... fireball projectiles fired from the hands, flying punches and kicks, absurd throws and slams.

Focus attacks, EX special moves, focus attack dash cancels, and EX special cancels are some of the more advanced moves that players can use, although the game is still fun if you can't use them well.... they just allow the player to have an extra competitive edge if used correctly!!

Focus attacks are a charged attack that release automatically after about a second, or can be released at will. What makes them so important is that they can absorb exactly one attack. Two hits will break the absorption, as will EX special attacks. To absorb an attack and then release the charged attack promptly is key for getting some good surprise-attack counters. Also, victims of charged focus attacks flinch greatly and fall to the ground, likely leaving them open for another hit or combo.

EX special moves are basically jacked-up versions of regular special moves. Also, they all hit at least two-in-one, meaning they instantly break focus attacks and do extra damage. Also, most of them instantly do multiple-hit combos, and are likely to take priority over more powerful attacks. EX special moves are good for mixing up your gameplay and keeping the opponent guessing. The check-and-balance for this means that using one EX special move eats up a quarter of your "Super" bar, which when it's filled allows you do unleash a crazy attack... more on those later.

Stemming from the focus attack is the focus attack dash cancel (FADC). This is executed simply by doing a dash (double tap of a direction), and the fighter instantly dashes in the direction indicated, out of the focus attack. Simple in execution, but it is good for baiting opponents into doing special moves. Many special moves instantly break focus attacks, and many people will go for this focus break, and this is where the risk/reward of going for the FADC, or a "focus-feint" as I've called it comes into practice.

EX cancels are for players with exceptional timing and planning. Personally, I've only used a few but they are very effective when used correctly. An EX cancel consumes a quarter of the "Super" bar just like an EX special attack, and it immediately resets a fighter to neutral standing after executing a special move, assuming they are still on the ground. For example, many special moves can be canceled right after they make first contact. This allows a fighter to immediately execute a devastating combo of their choice while their opponent is completely open and vulnerable.

Super combo and ultra combo attacks are a different animal entirely. Also, they can be your enemy as much as they are your friend, because it's easy to be tempted to try them. Because they do massive damage, as soon as the ultra combo bar fills up (from taking damage), a strong temptation exists to go for the ultra combo and even the score. However, most of the leave a fighter very vulnerable for at least a second or two.

Super combos I believe are the less functional of the two, simply because it eats up an entire "Super" bar. The cost of going for a Super combo is not only being left open for a brief time, but also that the potential for EX special moves immediately resets to zero. Also, the ultra bar fills up every time your fighter hits about half-health, while the super bar fills up with every attack as well as every hit and block, it usually takes more than one round to fill entirely.

The fighting mechanics in SSF4 are great. They function such that the move sets are rather easy to learn, and therefore there is much more emphasis placed on wit and skill instead of memorization of combos and exploitation of nuances. Don't get me wrong, the two aforementioned features are present, but are minimized.

SSF4 has an incredible roster of fighters, and amazingly they all feel unique (except for ryu/ken/akuma, who basically only differentiate from each other with subtle timing issues and a handful of regular, non-special attacks). Many fighting styles are represented, although exaggerated. Some of the characters even use over-the-top, crazy move sets that don't emulate any specific martial art. Also, the fighters all have very distinct personalities, which are evident even from the subtle movement of their characters. El Fuerte is frantic and fast, Abel is calm and controlled, Balrog is a brute, Vega is vain, Ryu is confident, and all the other characters portray their attitude with everything from their neutral stance to their ultra combos.

SSF4 is a great fighting game, and I highly recommend that everybody try it. It's easy to pick up and hard to put down!!

Super Street Figther 4 gets a B lettergrade!!