Monthly Archives: March 2013

Children Of Liberty: One Coat, Two Coat, Red Coat

Children of Liberty

There’s a lot of Boston going in Children of Liberty. Its developer is Lantana Games, a studio founded by Savannah College of Art and Design graduates that is based entirely in Boston. It concerns the failed raid on British general Thomas Gage, the man you may remember from history class as the military governor of ol’ Beantown who ordered the Intolerable Acts and pretty much set off Lexington and Concord. It also has lots of old brick walls and cobbled streets, both of which I associate with Boston.

Children of Liberty is set in the American Revolutionary War, but that’s not what it’s all about. With the era as a backdrop, Lantana Games takes a somewhat liberal but still historically accurate look at the circumstances behind what allowed Paul Revere to succeed in his storied ride the night before the shot heard ’round the world. Forget what National Treasure and Assassin’s Creed III told you; this is the story of four children and their chance to save the Sons of Liberty and the revolution.

Played from a two-dimensional perspective, the four children set out to stealth around in a three-dimensional world. Going from side-to-side, you can also maneuver between two different depths, sort of like LittleBigPlanet. You normally traverse in the foreground, but step into the background as cover where, if you enter the shadows unseen, you will be able to shimmy right by guards. You’ll have to jump and climb around oddly large crates and use whatever abilities you have to dodge the visible pyramidal vision cones of the red coats.

Children of Liberty

That particular part is very reminiscent of Mark of the Ninja, the stealth game from Klei Entertainment late last year. Mark of the Ninja aimed to remove all the frustrations of traditional stealth action games such as obfuscated or indeterminate actions and reactions by making everything discrete, a major influence on Children of Liberty.

“The visible sound in Mark of the Ninja really made that game,” says programmer Brian Wang. “It’s important in any stealth game that any actions you take and the consequences they have are extremely clear.” And for a 2D game, 3D is actually a very important part of it. “Sound will propagate around corners,” says Wang. “All those dudes at intersections and stuff should be fair game.”

Intersections meaning where two perpendicular planes of playable space meet. This is a bit like Shadow Complex in that regard where you traverse a 3D world by 2D means. At each intersection could be any number of guards either in your plane or on the one adjacent to yours and you can see where the guards are patrolling in both, allowing you to either avoid or eliminate them at your discretion.

Children of Liberty

Just don’t expect to see them. At least not yet, anyways. What I thought was a strange stealth mechanic (seeing vision cones but not the person it’s emanating from) actually turned out to be a limitation of resources. These “Saturday morning cartoon-style animations,” as animator Ricky Bryant, Jr. puts it, are all hand-drawn and they simply haven’t done the side views yet. When you or the British are head-on with the camera, you see smooth animations and classic, minimal-but-heavy line illustrations that look surreal in an interesting way against the 3D lit and rendered environment. Look down a corridor, however, and you just see vision cones since those are essentially free assets when they’re just colored meshes.

Inspiration, at least, is free, though. “Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a big one,” says Bryant. “Just the way cover was handled in that game. We knew we had to bring that in and bring up the stealth.” The art style, of course, recalls a very particular genre-bending Italian plumber. “Super Paper Mario,” says Bryant, “obviously was an inspiration. The camera movement, the game not caring about dimensionality at all.”

Ideas, of course, can’t save everything. What started out as an education children’s product for a local Boston organization, the studio eventually shifted the idea into its own thing, but they’re going up against a lot of stealth indies that are industry veterans at this point. “It’s scary,” says designer Dan Silvers. “When I look at guys like [Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson] and [Monaco designer Andy Schatz], they have a lot of experience under them. They know what they’re doing. We’re still treading water, hoping to find land.”

Children of Liberty

Treading and, it turns out, iterating. Last year at PAX East, Children of Liberty, Lantana’s first real commercial title, was pretty much just platforming and only recently did they amp up the stealth aspects. “The hardest thing,” says Wang, “was getting things working, and we only crossed that hump like a month ago. Like the shark in Jaws, one day, things just started working.”

How well it’s all working, though, remains to be seen. I played a brief demo with only the Joseph character who is the most straightforward out of the four available (the other three described as a freerunner, a tank, and a ninja while the playable fellow they showed is the “classic platformer”) and came away mixed. On one hand, I loved the idea, I loved the art, and I actually loved the action of dealing with guards either in multiples or at junction points. All that combined to make for a compelling (if simplistic) stealth experience.

Where it fell apart was when you dealt with single foes. Granted, this was what felt like an introductory tutorial level, but dealing with guards one at a time was trivial. And some parts such as where you have to leap over a patrolling red coat’s vision cone was clunky; jumping and snapping to grapple points never felt all that great.

Children of Liberty

This is, however, still an alpha. With PAX East leaving them in the throes of bankruptcy, they’re trying to hawk Children of Liberty for $10. For that $10, however, you get Minecraft-like access to said alpha right now, a Steam code should they make it through Steam Greenlight, all future updates, and free DLC. At this point, Children of Liberty is a promising little gem of a stealth game. The narrative is neat, the concept is intriguing, and the art is all the way great. Now they just need to fill in the gaps and pull their lofty thoughts back into a solid product.

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Get On Your Feet, We Got The BeatBuddy

BeatBuddy

“It’s gotta be sweaty in there,” I think to myself as I come up to the Reverb Publishing booth. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it is large, blue, and containing a very unlucky marketing fellow. But then I see another man, his neck overflowing with little miniature versions of this turquoise machination. This guy, as it turns out, is one of the three CEOs of Threaks, developers of BeatBuddy.

Wolf Lang—one of the coolest names I’ve ever heard, by the way—walks me through the basics of BeatBuddy: it’s an action adventure game based in a world of music. You play as BeatBuddy, a beryl, mouthless mass with headphones and a love of music, who inexplicably is woken up and set upon an adventure. A bit cagey, Lang will only go so far into the plot details, but our little rhythm-lover eventually meets the Prince of Music, an ostentatious dude who loves putting on concerts and, well, himself. He is abusing the music, and over the course the game’s six levels, we’ll discover why, how BeatBuddy is connected, and what their roles are in this world.

The gameplay itself is a 2D action game where BeatBuddy kind of, um, floats around in what feels like an aquatic world (Lang tells me people often ask, “Is he underwater? Is he a penguin?”). You have a dash move that can thrust you through certain constructs of the world and you can pick up other things, but most of the time you’ll just be coming up against maneuvering through beats and having the music literally move you through the game.

BeatBuddy

You see, each level of BeatBuddy is actually more of a track. As each one starts, a little text blurb comes up and credits the artist that wrote the song you’ll be playing, such as “Love Swing” by Sabrepulse. Each track of the song will get broken out into things like bass drum, hi-hat, and vocals and each one manifests itself differently within the game. Bass hits in this demo, for instance, are throbbing flower-like things that shoot you across the screen when you touch it. Diddles on the hi-hat are represented by a combination of a hermit crab-ish thing that controls several connected spiky creatures and the only way to get by without taking damage is to hit the crab, forcing it, the spikes, and the tnktnktnk of the music track to retract.

There’s also a thing called a BeatMobile that bumps up and down and can only move to the beat of the track. While other parts of the game has you tinkering around with the beat (and occasionally brute-forcing your way through some obstacles), the BeatMobile locks you down and quantizes your movement so you are inextricably tied to the rhythm. If you can’t keep up, you’re in a lot of trouble.

BeatBuddy, however, is not a music game. What started out three years ago as a game about a music virus, BeatBuddy was crafted out of what eventually became the BeatMobile section of the game. “Somewhere along the way,” says Lang, “[art director Denis Rogic] came up with this whole world around BeatBuddy. We said, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t be so abstract with the design. We’ve gotta come up with a believable world where we can also put a story in it and make people understand how the music is working.'”

Their goal, in the end, was “to not scare off anyone who didn’t like music games,” says Lang. It’s a niche genre within a relatively niche industry (in regards to exposure compared to movies, television, and music, anyways), so accessibility and reputability are both important. And what better way to do that than work with the man who got a Grammy nomination for it: Austin Wintory.

BeatBuddy

Wintory, if you’re not aware, is a composer, and a fairly prolific one at that with 300 scores under his belt since 2003. While some may know him for his work on 2009 Sundance hit Grace, most of the gaming world knows him as the guy who broke the mold by having his score for Journey be nominated for the 2013 Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media Grammy, the first video game to do so (Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” for Civilization IV was for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)). What Wintory did for BeatBuddy, though, was lend an air of legitimacy.

“A lot of musicians from the music scene weren’t sure what would happen because they’re not familiar with video games,” says Lang. “It doesn’t harm their music; it just gives another layer of experience,” something that Wintory helps prove. Approaching him with the simple query of “hey, want to write us a four-minute single for our game concept?”, a vindicated composer like Wintory helped give BeatBuddy and the team some clout.

It wasn’t just that, though, as Wintory also managed to give some back and forth during the process. Whereas most other games first have the design and development done first and then the music is put on top, BeatBuddy went the other direction. “Our idea was to go the opposite way,” says Lang. “We didn’t want to tell the composer, ‘Hey, now make music that fits my game.’ We want to take their structure and design the level around that.” And Wintory, fresh off (and perhaps during) the development of Journey, had some ideas.

BeatBuddy

“He already worked with Thatgamecompany, so he pitched some ideas and we pitched game ideas,” says Lang. “He already understood how the process works. He was telling us how music fit in with the development of Journey and he was giving us so many tips. He was telling us how things feel harmonic going from one area to another.”

From the bit that I played, it all seems to be working out. There’s something insanely hypnotic about moving through a world where all the auditory elements are totally discrete whereas they are usually muddled and ambient in the real world. Visuals are intrinsic to the medium, but having music—real music—as a diegetic part of the game world really gets it stuck deep into your head. I found it hard even when I wasn’t navigating deadly corridors or solving rhythmic puzzles to not move the stick and push buttons in time with the track.

The puzzles themselves are also fairly interesting. I was just getting started so some of them were barely even puzzles, but you had to pay attention to not only what things were doing visually but also how they interested musically. Moving this spire around would lead these blue bubbles around as well, all of which emanate from a single source. Depending on where you put the spire, different doors would open up, but as with everything in BeatBuddy, these bubbles also control a specific track of the song. So you could hear when the beat was right that you were opening up a progressive path in the level.

BeatBuddy

Those are interesting ideas, but three and a half years of thinking will often get you that. BeatBuddy seems to so far be on track of properly executing those ideas, too. I can’t be sure, but my time with it definitely tapped into my deeply rooted need to feel some dance-inducing beats. It’s often you get games that have great sound design, parts of which inform you of its visual counterpart, but BeatBuddy seems poised to have to go the other way around, and that sounds like a tune you can really tap your toe to.

Look for BeatBuddy on Steam sometime soon (“but definitely after E3,” says Lang).

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Telekinesis Kyle And The Mindful Sort

Telekinesis Kyle

The Vellum Interactive booth isn’t a booth so much as it is a foldout table and some iPad Minis. Spread across their sole physical structure is a slew of stickers that say “DOES YOUR MIND EVEN LIFT?” And if the Vellum name sounds familiar, it’s probably because they made a splash during the election last year with their presidential punching game Political Arena. So how did this tiny hooligan studio from Dallas make a game about a little boy gaining self-confidence?

Telekinesis Kyle is a game about a kid named Kyle who happens to have telekinetic powers. That much, I’m sure, you can surmise from the title, but the narrative built around that premise is where it gets good. Kyle is enrolled in a school for gifted youngsters—Professor X-style—but it turns out that the school is nothing more than a sham, a front for government-sponsored experiments on said youths. They want to harvest these supernatural abilities for military applications, but Kyle would really rather not get involved in that.

So to escape all these little clinical rooms littered with security cameras, spikes, and pressure-sensitive switches that open doors, Kyle uses his powers to solve puzzles that involve moving platforms, jumping chasms, and dodging lasers. It actually feels a lot like Portal, and for good reason: that was a major influence on the game.

Telekinesis Kyle

“We really like what Portal did in the puzzle space,” says creative director Daniel Luecke. The setting is pretty similar, as you can tell, but the story goes in a vastly different direction. Rather than discovering ambient scenes of absurdism and the oddly macabre, Telekinesis Kyle tells the tale of a little boy who discovers himself.

In that respect, the game is rather ambitious, but Luecke is no stranger to narrative heights. He actually came over from film and the world of student cinema. “It’s weird,” he says, “because the indie game community is so friendly. Everyone supports one another. Back when I made student films, it was really competitive.”

Bringing certain aspects over to games, though, might give Vellum a leg up on other studios anyways. “Cameras and lighting,” says Luecke when I asked about the differences between the two. Luecke is so used to working under physical and financial constraints that now that he has the relatively inconsequential limitations of virtual environments, he knows how to effectively achieve that which he’d only dreamt of before.

Telekinesis Kyle

Camera movements are especially important to him. “An important part of directing is subverting expectations,” says Luecke, “and making games is the same way.” This was illustrated in one particular level when I had to levitate a single box over to press one of two buttons. Each would force a respective platform to raise and lower in a loop. However, when I got to the end of a rather short path, it dawned on me that the end-of-level door wasn’t open. But how to get it open? There were no other buttons and neither the ones I’d used opened up the exit.

The answer was in plain sight the whole time: the moving platforms make a circuit that lights up when connected. So then I moved the first one into place, watching the line along the bottom light up. Then I moved the second one, only to see the light disappear. Another subversion: the second button moved not just the second platform but the first one as well. It was a series of twists that elevated what I thought was an otherwise simple and straightforward puzzle.

There were parts, though, that certainly show the game is still a work in progress. The second puzzle of the five-level demo had a similar “oh no, the door isn’t open” moment, but it wasn’t completely intentional. “That’s something we’re working on,” says Luecke. “The camera should pan over to this part of the level and show you this button,” a button that was completely hidden from view in the process of my solving the stage. But at least he’s keeping it in mind and keeping to his roots.

Telekinesis Kyle

Luecke’s history with film, however, has also influenced the game in terms of puzzle design. Used to working with slim pickings, “the goal is to keep the number of objects you use to an absolute minimum,” he says. And over the course of the demo, they seemed to have reached that goal; I never used more than three objects at any given time. But the number of the objects isn’t as important as the weight.

Kyle can use his powers indefinitely, but he can only lift so much at once, a metric visualized by a kU meter at the bottom of the screen. So if there are a bunch of little wooden crates, Kyle can probably lift them all at once and hold them in place as he runs across them. If he needs to lift a giant metal box and a giant metal plank, however, then he’ll need to do a little Tower of Hanoi-esque problem solving to get them where (and when) he needs them to be.

This is where the game gets a little fuzzy, though. At the end of each level, you get a rating of one to four stars (each one taking increasing amounts of time to *ding* as your score racks up in its best Pokémon impression), which is primarily based on however much kU you use to solve the puzzle. I’m not entirely sure how it’s measured since I repeatedly dropped and picked up and moved things erroneously along the way to the solution and regularly picked up things that would deplete Kyle’s mental resource but still got four stars on all five levels.

Telekinesis Kyle

Telekinesis Kyle, though, is still pretty fresh. It’s mere months into development and I didn’t see any comic book-style story sections, fires to put out, or robot guards. What I did see, though, is the midlife stage of a promising indie puzzle game. The mechanics are there, the ambitions lofty, and there’s a creative director who brings in a little something different, a little something new. Let’s just hope they don’t run out of juice before all the heavy lifting is done.

Look for Telekinesis Kyle on iOS devices this spring.

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Contrast: A Study In Art Darko

Contrast

Walking into the sizable Indie Megabooth at this year’s PAX East, I both knew what to expect and knew that what I expected would likely be subverted. I knew Transistor would drum up a lot of floor buzz and its line would be damn near unfathomable in length. I knew the Double Fine/Capybara Games booth would make a big splash and feature a beardless Tim Schafer. But I didn’t know that an indie-er game would steal my heart.

I passed by what felt like a dozen times, never really giving it much thought. From the looping trailer that played on the TV, it looked an awful lot like the 2010 Wii game Lost in Shadow. Everything I saw was just a shadow running across other shadows, leaping gaps and hugging walls. As the convention began to wind down for the second day, though, I happened to walk by one more time and, for some reason or another, finally decided to give it a chance.

And boy am I glad I did.

Contrast

Contrast is a game four years in the making from a tiny studio out of Montreal (they run slim on just seven team members) that is about light, shadows, and a little eight-year-old girl named Didi. Set in the 1920s at the height of the Jazz Age and the burgeoning of Art Deco, Didi lives with her mother but spends most of her time with her best friend Dawn.

Dawn, however, isn’t real. To Dawn, though, none of us are real either. Compared to her tiny progenitor, Dawn is strong, capable, and older, but she’s also imaginary and only sees people of the real world either in shadows or not at all (save for Didi). Whereas Didi is young and innocent and unsure of the world, Dawn is mature, lascivious, and knowing enough to be wary of what lies ahead. The contrast is as strong as the light and dark that the game trades in.

Shadows are something of a specialty for Dawn in that she can merge into nearby walls at will, at which point she is in this alternate state of being where she can walk on and boost through shadows. This is the key point at which Contrast diverges from Lost in Shadow and other similar games: Dawn can be controlled both from a conventional, three-dimensional perspective and from a flat, two-dimensional scheme. As a corporeal form (as much as you can get when you’re imaginary, anyways), you can move light sources, collect luminaries (a hybrid collectible and in-game resource), and explore this strange, broken world.

Contrast

I say broken because the world that you explore as Dawn is obviously not the same one that Didi lives in. After a brief tutorial of how to go in and out of shadows, we break out into a wide open 1920s strip of nightlife. Not content with simply going through the motions and immediately following objectives, I wander a bit (to the point where the PR person thinks I’m lost) and quickly stumble upon the end of the world. I mean the literal end; the street bends and sags and snaps off into a void.

“Did you see that? Not many people see that,” says level designer Joshua Mills. “We want the game to open for interpretation, so some things that people want explained may not be explained.” Beyond certain vagaries of Dawn’s world, this could extend to the Shel Silverstein ending to the road or to the intricacies of the shadow world or Didi’s growing relationship with a fictional reality.

The first real puzzle presented to the player in the demo is admittedly from several hours into the game, but it gives a chance to introduce luminaries. Luminaries are little floating balls of light that are scattered about the level in limited quantities and, possibly, in hard-to-reach locations. The function as both a collectible (“1 of 9 luminaries collected,” the game says) and as a resource. They power anything that produces light and light is often the first step for solving a puzzle, puzzles that include illuminating a jazz band, untangling a tangled hot air balloon, and powering up a carousel.

Contrast

The first step for Compulsion Games, though, seems to be creating a whole bunch of content. Even in these small bits of the game that I played, I was blown away by how much stuff is in the game. Everything is voiced and each setting seems to be wholly visually distinct from every other area. And all of it is absolutely drenched in the 1920s. Dawn with her old timey acrobat getup, shadows with fedoras, and buildings with gilded architecture. But why the 1920s?

“I think it’s just personal preference,” said Mills. “When I started with Compulsion, we have a drive with a bunch of movies on it, and it’s like you have to watch these if you want to work here.” One of them was Dark City, the 1998 neo-noir film about a fella with amnesia who finds himself accused of murder. “A lot of the levels and stuff I designed is directly inspired by that.” Dawn, though, in particular seems to draw from a different well.

“Alice,” said Mills matter-of-factly. “All that stuff that American McGee does.” It becomes readily apparent when you compare Dawn and Alice from Alice: Madness Returns side-by-side as compatriots of a dark, twisted fantasy. But it’s also more than that. “Some of the camera techniques really inspired the way we handle some things.”

Contrast

That, especially, comes to the forefront when after a puzzle involving fixing spotlights, you are treated to an extended jazz performance. A sultry singer, a smoky sax, and lingering shots of shadows skewed against the sharp Deco angles of the stage. The camera follows from the edges of the ostentatious proscenium to a door as a man and a woman dart out into the side stage, though they appear as only shadows to us. Didi calls out to one and gives chase as Dawn follows. Possibly an estranged father figure and possibly not even real. Mills explained it to me thusly: “if somebody has an imaginary friend, the parent will play along but they still don’t believe.”

There are obviously holes in Didi’s life that we will hopefully see filled. Dawn is “only there because [Didi] needs you to be there,” and she is presented as an acrobat because Didi sees things as a “performance piece,” her imaginary counterpart a warped version of a Cirque du Soleil performer. And it all serves to explore what the player wants to fill in the gaps with.

Contrast

“Any good story allows somebody to feed their own input into it and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Mills said. “Everyone on the team has their own take on it, but it really is open for people to fill it in themselves.” And that seems to be the resonant theme of Contrast. Light fills in the dark of the shadows, Didi fills in the holes of her life, and we fill in the gaps with our interpretation. If nothing else, Contrast seems poised to push some buttons, tug some heartstrings, and, most importantly, ask some interesting question.

Look for Contrast on Steam in the next two months.

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Eyes-On With Watch Dogs: Watch This, Do That

Watch Dogs

It seemed to me that the longest line at the Ubisoft booth at PAX East this year was the one for Watch Dogs, which I feel like might have left a few people disappointed. A certain amount of detective work was required to mine the gold from the video, pushing through high expectations and a willingness to sit back and soak in what our eyes have already seen. Whichever you take it, the news for Watch Dogs coming out of this video presentation was sparse but interesting if you knew where to look.

In the grand scheme of things, the actual footage shown to us was pretty much the same stuff from the PlayStation 4 announcement. In fact, we got to see it twice: first with developer interviews cut in throughout and then from a city perspective with a pseudo APB police broadcast. You have Aiden Pierce (the first time we get his name), a master hacker “obsessed with surveillance” whose ability to break the city confounds the authorities, trolling for information from people’s wireless devices and then stealing some money from some pro-life lobbyist.

Then you cut to Aiden tracking a woman who has a high probability of becoming a victim of some crime seeing as how she has a restraining order against a presumably shitty ex-husband. She wanders down an alleyway and encounters the aforementioned ex, at which point the probability jumps up from “watch your back” to “oh shit it’s happening.” Aiden intervenes, chases the restrainee down, and tackles him after hack-exploding some electrical conduit.

Watch Dogs

Cops pursue, Aiden flees, and we watch him escape on a hacked train and we see the same Frag Doll PixxelFD tag over a watchful security camera. But now we are told through the video voiceover that this is because Watch Dogs will be able to be played with other people “any platform, anywhere you want, at any time.” It’s very vague, but we’re shown both the train camera and another newspaper stand camera that people can have influence on your game world through these means. Aiden lives in a “hyper-connected” world, and it seems we are joining him in that connectivity.

The next interesting tidbit is that Watch Dogs attempts to totally recreate an alternate history/future Chicago. This isn’t just from a city planning perspective (though that is true, too) but in that the game will simulate the entire city including traffic, emergencies, and infrastructure. The narrative presents it as something called ctOS, which is short for Central Operating System. It is the system within the story that tracks everyone’s comings and goings and finances and, well, pretty much everything. But for the player, it allows you to interact with a living, breathing city.

Watch Dogs

ctOS will simulate how city services react to Aiden based on what you’ve done in the past such as help or hinder citizens or how people wandering the streets will go about in their daily lives. You will gain a reputation through the system and people will come to either fear or revere you as you cause chaos and (fail to) solve problems. It seems super-duper fascinating if it all pans out. It’s as if a subset of SimCity has been planted right into a third-person action game and “you’re going to turn an entire city into a weapon against itself.”

And there you have it. That was the presentation in a nutshell: two repeats of the same footage we saw back in February sliced up in two different ways with two different sets of voiceover. Visually, we didn’t get a lot of new stuff except talking head segments with developers and designers of the game, but if you listened carefully, you could pick up on some fresh details.

Watch Dogs

We have a name, we have some deeper implications of multiplayer across multiple platforms, and we have what seems to a deeply complex, systemic set of simulations that power a dynamic recreation of Chicago. It all sounds incredibly fascinating, but that’s all we have to go on at this point: ambition, a grand-scale story of family drama and city politics, and a dude with a cool jacket.

Look for Watch Dogs in Q4 of 2013.

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Eyes-On With Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – A Hard Tack

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Descending the main escalators at PAX East, you’ll notice pretty much three things: 1) there’s a whole lot of people crammed into an increasingly smaller and smaller-feeling exhibit hall, 2) how much you want to play everything you see, and 3) the Ubisoft booth. And that last one is no mean feat considering the glaringly purple TwitchTV stage is right next to it, but Edward Kenway gives a pretty mean stare from that billboard-sized sign hanging over you.

Once ushered into the theatre, it’s even harder to get past the Ubisoft-ness of it all. A very aggressive and friendly woman at the door gets you all hyped up to watch a very brief, gameplay-free video about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and then another very aggressive and friendly Frag Doll instructs everyone on how to inflate your inflatable pirate sword and to yell out during the video presentation when you see something you like. There are also, inexplicably, two bouncer fellows at each end of the sweltering, crate-filled room.

Then the video starts, and it all makes sense. It is also hard to get over in the same overwhelming but slightly fuzzy way. It shows just about no real gameplay—only stuff we can optimistically assume is captured footage—and it is prefaced with a heavy deluge of producers and designers giving us press release talk.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

But the things we actually see sound pretty interesting. Edward Kenway, the predecessor to Haytham Kenway of Assassin’s Creed III, is an Assassin-trained pirate and, along with the famed Black Beard, is one of the most feared captains of the high seas. The swashbuckling, however, is a ruse, and the game aims to reveal what his ulterior motives are for traveling the Caribbean.

As a pirate, Edward is decked out with a half dozen guns and two gigantic swords at all times, leaving him as one of the more well-armed protagonists of an Assassin’s Creed game yet. He is also the first one that can navigate underwater environments and not just hover below the surface for seconds at a time. And remember all the hunting you did in Assassin’s Creed III? Well now you can hunt both while aboard your ship the Jackdaw and underwater. We see a huge whale jumping out of the water as well as Edward stabbing a shark with his sword.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Naval battles, a nearly unanimous highlight of an otherwise divisive Assassin’s Creed III, are back, though we don’t see to what extent things have changed or remained the same, but there will be plenty of cannons being fired and hulls being breached from what I could tell. We’re promised, however, the ability to either battle from afar with our ship’s armaments or get in close and board if we so choose. A key word uttered was “seamless” as you will be able to roam the seas and land on islands and recruit new crew members (presumably taking over the assassin call button) in whatever manner you see fit.

Most importantly, though, is this little gem of a quote: “stealth is back.” During the video, it was noted that Ubisoft listened to fans and they’ve brought stealth aspects back. They don’t say specifically what this means in terms of gameplay (nor are we shown what it means), but I figure if they know, then they’re at least on the right track.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The video presents the game in a flattering light, no doubt, but once that gel is removed, what is left? If you recall, we saw the one burning ships sequence of Assassin’s Creed III last year that people loved and we ended up with a game that was rather mediocre. And that was real gameplay. This time we have nothing but the word of the developers and some circumstantial evidence.

I’m hopeful, though. This is a hard swing from past games. Edward is the first morally ambiguous character we’ve controlled (Connor and Altaïr being the more chivalrous of the bunch with Ezio more of a chaotic good sort of dude) seeing as how he’s a pirate who loots and kills to keep up his intimidation factor and a sizable chunk of the game seems to be not even based in the franchise-making freerunning mechanic. And this will be the first game where the plot moves backwards in time with the Animus, not the mention the first one without Desmond and a focus on the Assassins. These are interesting problems with hopefully interesting solutions, but we’ll have to wait and see if they prove to be solutions at all.

Look for it on October 29, 2013.

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Eyes-On With Saints Row IV: Aye, There’s The Wub

Saints Row IV

I guess I’m not surprised. Saints Row: The Third was a popular game and media passes are becoming increasingly easier to come across, but come on. Why is there a cosplayer in the room? Why is there someone here who is clapping and Jerry Springer whooping at everything producer Jim Boone says? And why am I repressing the joyful glee within me that makes me want to join them?

Because yes.

Saints Row IV, in a word, is appropriate. It’s logical. It is, from what I can surmise after a seven-minute hands-off gameplay demo video, totally what you would expect from a followup to a game that features exploding pedicabs powered by BDSM gimps. In it, we are shown what Boone calls “the virtual world,” which is explained by the fact that this all takes places in the mind of the head Saint.

Which might also explain why there are aliens and you are the President of the United States and Steelport has become a weird, topsy-turvy, DmC Devil May Cry Limbo-esque version of the one you know and love from SR3. Boone explained that while yes, some of that is taken from the canceled and reappropriated SR3 DLC Enter the Dominatrix (namely the aliens, which are now called the Zen), but he also says that Saints Row IV is still very much a new game. The DLC only helped to facilitate ideas and not necessarily content or mechanics.

Saints Row IV

That may or may not be true, but I can say with absolute certainty that I like what I saw. Coming back are several smaller bits and pieces from past Saints Row games such as deftly executed melee takedowns (like sliding crotch punches), XP bonuses for driving recklessly (which still manifest in that purple circle that fills up and flares up), and, from what I remember, chunks of Steelport. But that’s all old. You’re here for the new.

And boy howdy is there some new stuff. We are shown two new weapons right off the bat, showcased with the same irreverence with a side of appreciation as Insomniac would show off new Ratchet & Clank guns. The first is something called the Inflate-o-ray which, well, you know how when you over-inflate a balloon, it pops? Yeah, that. Then there was the dubstep gun which fired off these beautiful arcing light beams that of course caused the entire world to stutter, the game to play the wubs, and cars to bounce up and down to the broken electro beat. It is pretty fantastic.

There are some actual changes to what the player can do, too, seeing as how it’s all in his head. Volition thought it would be appropriate to give your character super powers, and I would have to agree. You get super speed, super jumps, super strength, telekinesis, and the ability to glide à la Cole from Infamous. In fact, as I watched several minutes of super powered wreckage being produced, my first thought was this was what I wanted Infamous, Prototype, and Crackdown to play like.

Saints Row IV

The world has similarly changed to accommodate your powers, too. Boone said that Steelport had been redesigned to allow for the increased verticality in gameplay (just as the video showed him dashing through a street, jumping six stories in the air, and landing on a rooftop) and is comparatively “massively larger.” This includes the landscape (which has been torn asunder and is shown, um, floating in parts), architecture, collectibles, and the enemies. The Zen will be your primary foe in Saints Row IV, replacing the gangs from SR3. Boone points out, though, that the total variety of Zen definitely outnumbers that of previous games, so don’t worry about having to fight the same thing over and over again.

Of course, new throwaway things are also packed in there like a rocket launcher mod called the Soopa Six that looks an awful lot like the Super Scope 6 and a guitar case called the El Fugitivo as a shoutout to Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. And new perfunctory missions have been added like mech suit mayhem in which the celebration screen shows you doing the robot in said mech suit. Those side bits will also earn you different rewards based on bronze, silver, or gold rankings.

Some inconsistencies with SR3 have also been addressed. Now that the Zen is there, Saints Row IV will have a much more consistent antagonist and less of a meandering narrative as with the multitude of gangs of old. However, if you think that you still won’t get to do a bunch of weird side stuff, then you’re wrong because Saints Row IV gets a little Psychonauts-y in that you will get to explore the psyches of other Saints and see what it’s like in their minds.

Saints Row IV

Going into the presentation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew from other press people that it was still Saints Row, but little else came out of their mouths except maniacal laughter and Skrillex sounds. And after half an hour of videos and Qs being A’d, I still don’t know what to expect except maybe more Saints Row.

Expected release date is August 20, 2013.

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The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct’s Bucket

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct's Bucket

So now there are two games out there starting with the words “The Walking Dead.” The first is by a small(ish) studio named Telltale Games who also made the Back to the Future adventure game and put out the Puzzle Agent series. You may know this one as The Game That Won All Those GOTY Awards. It is, unequivocally, a stellar game.

Then there’s the other one. Developed by Terminal Reality, published by Activision, and featuring the voice talents of Norman Reedus, arguably the more successful half of the Boondock Saints. It was the focus of much derision upon a fake trailer release, continued to be a sticking point with fans once the official one dropped, and is now, unsurprisingly, a hot mess of a game. Across the board, vitriol appears to be the soup du jour.

I’ve put about an hour into it and I pray to god I won’t have to put in any more. But seeing as how I have not and will not finish it, I can’t in good conscience call this a review. I can, however, tell you that Survival Instinct is like a bucket. It’s a bucket with a couple of nuggets of goodness at the bottom. These are the good ideas that kind of kept me going past the first 15 minutes, but they are covered with a nice fine blend of mud and offal. Then a grate is put over the top and the bucket is tipped over.

What happens? You are now covered in wet, dirty entrails and all the good stuff is still in the bucket. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

One of the good ideas was the interesting curveball you’re thrown at the beginning. It’s a bit rote in that the-person-you-play-as-dies, Call of Duty sort of way, but I really thought it was interesting. (Mild spoiler) I thought I was in for a treat, being put in the shoes of Merle and Daryl Dixon’s father, fighting a losing battle only to die with a fading image of a heartbroken son in his eyes.

There’s also an interesting mechanic where you get into this grapple mode with walkers and are forced to fumble up close for your life. You basically have one hand fending off your undead foe while the other has a knife. The right stick controls a reticle that represents the knife hand and the goal is to get it over the head before pulling the right trigger to stab it in the noggin. It’s a struggle since the zombie is impeding you with his oddly effective flailing, so you have to fight against a swimming aim. It’s kind of exhilarating the first few times you do it since it feels like it mimics what you would expect the actual experience of fighting off a walker to be like.

The problem is that you do it like a million more times. All right, that’s an exaggeration, but in the scant bit I played, I entered into this grapple state at least 30 times, and most often it was three or four times in a row. Given that guns are loud, ammo is scarce, and the act of shooting zombies is horribly unsatisfying, I found that the most reliable tactic to take out a group of undead was to wade into the middle and start grappling.

The other option is to take out my knife and slash them in the head. If you can stealth up behind one, you can ram jam your blade into its skull, but otherwise you have to stand there and swipe at the head. Not once, not twice, but three times. It’s awkward, boring, and leaves you open to being grappled, which soon becomes similarly awkward and boring and leaves you open to playing more of this game.

Imagine it: you are standing there, face-to-face with a walker. You are holding your knife out ahead of you parallel to the ground as it approaches you with its arms out, looking for a hug. So what do you do? Obviously give it a subpar shave with what looks like the single most impotent knifing motion ever made. And then you have to do it three times in the same right-to-left-and-back-to-reset motion. Swipe, pause, swipe, pause, swipe, die. It is a painfully stilted and choreographed scene clearly constructed so that the timing works out that the walker recovers just as you finishing reeling from your exhausting knifing efforts.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton has it captured in all its GIF glory. You can see it at the top of this article.

That, I feel, is a perfect mirror for what the entirety of Survival Instinct is like. It makes sense that ammunition for firearms is sparse and tactically only make sense for when you’re in a jam due to walker proclivity for LOUD NOISES, just as it is in the show and comic books. It makes sense and drives an interesting point of being stealth- and melee-based whereas most other zombie games are all about shooting things, but they could have made it fun.

You could have a combat system that fits into your weapon priority that’s fun. And you could have a grapple system that’s fleshed out for more variety and less I-want-to-die-ty. And you could have level design where you don’t feel like Wile E. Coyote running into fake tunnels. And you could have a game that people would actually want to play.

But you don’t. You don’t have any of that. You have a $50 game that is the poster child for good ideas and poor execution. You have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct.

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Throw Them Bows

Throw Them Bows

2012 was the year of the bow. According to Giant Bomb, there was such a massive influx of games that featured bows and arrows that it was impossible to ignore. Hell, even Amazon got in on the joke. There was Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3 (granted, it is from 2013, but bow-centric marketing started long ago), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and dozens more that highlight the art of archery. Wreckateer, the XBLA title from Iron Galaxy, was pretty much just about a single bow.

I’d been thinking about writing this for a while, but Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote up a piece about bows this week. It talks about the quality of an assortment of modern video game bows including Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3, Skyrim, and Far Cry 3, but there’s one I want to talk about in particular and that’s Tomb Raider.

For all its flaws, I really, really, really like Tomb Raider. I think it’ll be another week or so to get past the reactionary phase of playing a great game to determine whether or not I truly loved it, but Crystal Dynamics reboot of the classic franchise just might be one of my favorites for the generation. Lara Croft in this game is fantastic (writer Rhianna Pratchett did a terrific job humanizing what used to be a 13-year-old’s sexual fantasy) and she plays like a tuned-up Ferrari, but the highlight of the game is definitely her signature bow.

Throughout the course of the game, it transforms both literally and figuratively. You will be able to use found parts and salvage to upgrade Lara’s starting weapon, going from a bundle of sticks she snatches from a tree-bound corpse to an Olympic-calibre instrument of simplistic projectile death. But you will also go from using it for hunting wildlife for sustenance to using it to traverse wide open chasms in the mountains to solving puzzles to straight-up murdering fools.

Perhaps starting out using the bow as a non-human killing device is key to my love affair with the weapon. I barely remember the actual cutscene where Lara approaches a downed deer and uses an arrow to finish it off, but I do remember how I lingered about in that opening area killing rabbits and crows and things. It was a different experience than when I hunted in Assassin’s Creed III because I was so enamored with the idea of using my athletic prowess to catch up to animals and ending them with my hidden blade. It was different from even Far Cry 3 because the things I hunted were far too dangerous for a mere arrow (explosive rounds were often the solution).

Let alone the fact that Lara is instantaneously capable of handling a bow, Tomb Raider stuck me with this thing and it made my very first non-directed actions in the game extremely personal. I immediately associated all movement and goals with destinations at the end of a road that only an arrow could drive. Non-bow-related skills became nonessential. I was all the way in.

The bow itself, though, also has a large impact on why I love it. You pull the left trigger to bring it up and then the right trigger to draw the string, releasing your right index finger when you want to fire. The longer you pull back, the stronger the shot will be—to a point. Hold too long and Lara’s aim will shake, her arms and fingers tiring from the immense strain the taut system exacts on her muscles. Eventually, the entire operation poops out and you’re out. This gives the mechanic a seriously realistic feel; it mirrors exactly what you would expect to happen with such a primitive, non-compound bow. It also parallels what you are experiencing within the game: your aim begins to tire as well, a tracked target delivering diminished returns over a quick, well-timed pull.

Releasing the arrow, too, is supremely natural. With both triggers actuated, you simply release the left trigger and the arrow is quivered. It reminds me a lot of the first Assassin’s Creed‘s control premise where each button controlled a single part of your body like your head, each arm, and your legs. The left trigger controls the bow arm and the right trigger controls the string arm, so when you release the string but not the bow, it fires. Release the bow, however, and not the string and you release all the tension in the string as the bow encroaches on the base of the arrow. It’s a simple but effective metaphor that serves to empower and simplify the player’s action.

Of course, firing the arrow is only half the equation. What happens when you hit something is the other half, and enemy reactions to the bow are simply sublime. I was never one for the gore porn style of horror films like Saw and Hostel, but I do demand commensurate reaction from my actions in video games, even if that means being a little macabre. So when Lara lets loose an arrow into a bad guy, I want it to feel like it should, like some dude just got three feet of wood and metal through the chest.

The sound when you nail someone in center mass is perfect. You feel the thunk more than you hear it, though truly your ears are the only things receiving any meaningful input in that regard. It’s a thwip, fhhhwww, thunk and the guy is reeling. These are sounds you’ve probably replicated a millions times with just your mouth when you played cowboys and Indians or pretended to be the Green Arrow or retold your take on Robin Hood, and to finally hear it accurate recreated as if they delved deep into your mind and came back with a WAV file of your childish notions of audio design.

Then, when the arrow does make contact with someone, it looks just so incredibly right. It’s not an overdone effect like when you blast someone with a shotgun in the game (it’s cartoonish, but it works), but instead it is subtly appropriate. Or at least as subtle as you can get when a razor-tipped rod shuttles into a dude’s eye socket at 130 mph. There’s just the slightest hint of a delay, suggesting that the reactions to a death blow is more cerebral than physical, which seems accurate given the total force of an arrow is nowhere near enough to physically knock someone down. But the way the head snaps back and the body crumples. Jeez it’s perfect. It gives the bow such a deadly feel without turning it into a string-mounted laser like in Crysis 3.

And once you start using it to ignite flammable gas and hook up zip-lines and pull down structures, you develop an all-encompassing relationship with the bow. It’s not just for hunting and it’s not just for killing. Instead, it’s for getting you out of a jam. It’s for getting you places you can’t get yourself. It’s a security blanket that gets you where you need to go. For Lara Croft, it is always the year of the bow.

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Progression Perfected

Progression Perfected

Progress is what we live for. Without some sense of growth or even a goal to aim for beyond our current capabilities, attainable or not, we die. It’s just that simple, if a bit hyperbolized. I don’t necessarily prescribe to the extreme that George Clooney proselytized in Up in the Air, but I do agree that we are a bit like sharks: we need to keep moving. And some studies agree.

That’s what makes progress in video games so interesting. Do you remember back when magazines rated games based on categories like graphics and fun factor? One of them would almost always be replayability, a made-up word to describe how worthwhile it would be to pick up the game again once you’ve beaten it. It’s basically shorthand for whether or not the core mechanics or story can make up for the lack of progression you feel once you’ve achieved all there is to achieve. Ham-fisted? Sure, but it does bring into light the notion of meted out and purposefully designed player progress.

I think that in the current form of games, replayability takes a backseat to firstability, or if the initial journey through is enough to warrant either a purchase by a potential player or the existence of the game itself. Compared to when arcades ruled the world or when computers first found their way home or even when the Nintendo 64 made a splash, the number of games that come out now is absurd. From indie releases on shady websites to Kickstarter and Steam to traditional big publisher titles to the impossibly large swath of mobile games, we are inundated with things to play and that firstability is important.

A game that excels at that is Ridiculous Fishing, the latest iOS offering from Dutch development duo/loose partnership conglomeration Vlambeer. There are many ways to do it right such as with a perfectly built story that progresses through highs and lows just when you need them to or with a succession of changing and morphing gameplay sequences that tease you along to the finish, but Ridiculous Fishing does it through a rather unconventional way: a store.

It’s unconventional in the sense that few other games succeed at doing so, not that no one else tries. As you play through the simple but ever-maddening gameplay loop of drop lure, collect fish, and shoot things, you collect money, money that you spend in a store that seemingly follows you all over the world on a perpetually offscreen boat. Amongst all the Tesla coils and gravity wells, the most mundane category is probably the most interesting.

You can buy fishing lines that increase in length and price. These upgrades allow you to dive deeper and deeper in to the ocean which, at first blush, only serves to allow you to rake in more money on a single run than before. However, you’ll notice that each new location on the map subsequently has a deeper and deeper maximum depth. What’s down there? Why new fish, of course.

Fish species themselves are somewhat of a currency as for each one you hook that is new to your fishopedia, you get closer to unlocking a new location on your map. So the money you use to get the darkness-loving fish with a longer line in effect allows you to tangentially buy new fishing areas, but these new fishing areas themselves progress as well. Fish are trickier (some will zoom by and accidentally hit your hook or maybe chase you down if you get too close or prevent you from chainsawing through them) and the jellyfish are more punishing but they are worth so much more money.

And by the time you unlock these new areas, you’ve played enough to where your skills at both playing the game and reading fish behavior have increased that you feel ready for these bigger challenges, as if you’ve outgrown your old stomping grounds.

The important part, however, is the timing framing these incremental steps. Everyone’s attention span will vary, but they can largely be generalized to nominal values, and it seems like Ridiculous Fishing taps into this to great effect. Just as you feel like you are beginning to wear down from playing the same area with the same fishing rod setup, you’ve earned just enough money. Just enough for what? To keep you interested.

Every time I thought about quitting for the night when I first downloaded Ridiculous Fishing, I would notice that I was just a few more outings out from buying a new gun or some new lure enhancement. Or maybe I would be just a few drops away from buying a new line that would allow me to reach the end of a previous area so I could catch whatever special critter lie at the bottom. While the objective value would increase (just $3,000 more, just $6,000 more, just $10,000 more), it would always increase commensurate to my absolute progress so I would never be something like 20 more outings from being able to afford the next upgrade.

Then when you buy your new toy, at least a few outings are spent messing around with it, determining if it fits in this area or your style or whatever. And by the time you’re done dicking around, you notice you’re just a few more trips to the bottom away from buying the dual miniguns or the big fuel tank. Of course, this all only lasts as long as the store lasts, which is unfortunately finite, but that’s why it’s about firstability and replayability. It’s the first-time progression that is important and not the ones that follow. Curiosity has no reset button.

The progress in Ridiculous Fishing is ridiculously appropriate for the game. You are a fisherman constantly hooking new creatures to your bait, stringing them along launch them for a thrilling ride in the sky, and that is exactly what playing Ridiculous Fishing feels like. You are a fish and Vlambeer has dangled a lure right in front of your nose. Break the line and there’s just another one waiting. This is a tease that keeps you hooked. This is progression perfected.

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