Category Archives: PC

The Stanley Parable Review: A Masterful Choice

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is very difficult to talk about. You can beat it in less than five minutes, but by the time you’re done with it, three hours will have passed. Then in discussing any part of it, you destroy the effect of the game’s actions, though not any part of its intent. And any meaningful diminishing of The Stanley Parable is doing it a disservice, because this is an essential game on so many levels.

If you don’t recall it from years past, The Stanley Parable is a first-person narrative, uh, puzzle game that serves to be more commentary than game, though being a game is part of the commentary. It started out as a Half-Life 2 mod back in July of 2011 by Davey Wreden, though many more people have contributed to the project in its most recent and likely final incarnation. Most of the framework remains unchanged from its days as a mod, but its polish adds a lot to the game.

It adds a lot to an already substantial game. Not necessarily substantial in how much time it takes, but it lampoons, addresses, questions, pokes, and gently ribs so much you hold dear with how stories and video games work. It takes a little chunk of your time to tell you the story of a man named Stanley who works in an office doing nothing more than receiving commands and then input those commands into a keyboard. Every. Single. Day.

(From here on out, there will be minor spoilers for the game because it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the point of The Stanley Parable without bringing up its content, nearly all of which is specific and particular. If you have any inkling of playing this game—and you should—then stop reading and go play it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep going. Or do whatever you want. The Stanley Parable taught me better than to try to control someone.)

But one day, his coworkers disappear. And a delightfully British narrator voiced by the absolutely stellar and game-making Kevan Brighting steps in to give personality to the otherwise voiceless proceedings. Or more accurately, a narrator steps in to direct you where to go to find out what happened on this strange, empty day. You don’t pick up collectibles or even jump; you just go about Stanley’s life.

If you follow all of his implicit instructions (think of the narrator from Bastion, where sometimes he describes your actions and other times he describes the action around you), you can finish the game rather quickly. The speedrun achievement, in fact, is for a completion time of 4:22, and you will find an interesting story that comments on the pointless nature of office life and working at a job you don’t love.

The Stanley Parable

As a guy who used to work in a giant corporate office housing one of the biggest fast food companies in the world, this landed so close to home, I had to wonder if my name was actually Stanley. I’ve had countless attempts trying to subtly influence my friends to pursue their passions in lieu of job security and daily indignation (which has so far produced a man quitting his 9-to-5 to drive around New Mexico and sleep in a camper). This is the first point at which the game becomes essential.

But when you start to deviate from the script, then the game begins to show its true colors. You will end up playing through the game multiple times, each time ending up in a different predicament, but each one as poignant as the last. One ending, which you can bring about with startling efficiency, addresses the cowardice of ignoring the world beyond your grasp. Another makes you question what it means to exist in a life of predetermined paths. Though it will often have you chuckling at its words, the game will also make you think.

It will make you think about the philosophical implications of choice and existence, yes, but it also will make you question what that means inside a video game…while playing a video game. The design of the game is very linear, but its serves a purpose: its own blueprint of player interaction has been so finely tuned that when it comments on the nature of player agency and curiosity, you accept that the developer knows what he’s talking about. (It makes me wonder, though, if people less versed in video game tropes will find it equally fascinating.)

The Stanley Parable

Nearly all of your actions have been considered. You will face a choice—left or right—over and over again, and this choice will come to affect the way you view all other choices both literally through the game and through your mental considerations. And your choices will lead you down so many varying paths of defiance and acceptance. This, more than anything, is a game about free will.

Thematically speaking, The Stanley Parable is about you accepting that your choices are ultimately meaningless. It directly addresses it in one particular (and small, confined) instance, but it spreads what could have otherwise been a rote dissection of game design out into a side quest, a pulse-pounding action sequence, a parodic wink/nudge of the industry’s so-called standards, and so much more. As soon as you step away from the straight line leading you from A to B, you reject all the virtual impetus inherent in the medium, but to get anywhere, you have to accept them once more. Do you have control, or does the designer? Is that the true parable here?

It would be heartbreaking of the game wasn’t so entertaining. Of course, the moment following playing The Stanley Parable will probably be some of the most somber of your gaming career, but it’s an important experience. It’s why it’s important to read dissenting opinions of both game reviews and Supreme Court decisions. It’s why satire is just as vital to discourse as is genuine opinion. It’s why you should play The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable

+ The narrator is damn near close to perfect
+ Metaphysical commentary on choice presented in a medium based on choice is brilliant
+ There are moments where the game is truly beautiful, psychologically and graphically
+ Inspirational mainline about getting out of a drone job
+ Sobering realization that choices and life in games are meaningless

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Stanley Parable
Release: October 17, 2013
Genre: First-person narrative
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.stanleyparable.com/

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Hands-on With Always Sometimes Monsters: Always Tragic

Always Sometimes Monsters

My first day at PAX Prime 2013 was off to strange start. It opened with a rousing game of find-the-media-registration, which for some reason was tucked away in an underground tunnel off to the side of the entire show’s acreage and landed me a solid 15 minutes behind schedule. My breakfast had consisted of orange juice and a granola bar, less substantial than I usually had to fuel a day where I would later subsist on trail mix and thoughts of pancakes. And now, I was manically walking and surveying the Indie Megabooth looking for a game called Always Sometimes Monsters.

The trailer, if you’ve seen it, is rather misleading. It does accurately reflect the themes that this game is addled with insomuch that it talks about choices and consequences, but it does so in such a heavy-handed manner than doubt began to creep into my mind. Its writing comes across as trite and makes a point of circling the same thesis several times without coming to a satisfying conclusion. But as I walked up to creative director Justin Amirkhani, another press fellow was just wrapping up his demo. His facial expression told me what I needed to hear: there’s something to this game.

Always Sometimes Monsters is the first game from first-timers Vagabond Dog, a small eight-person team from Toronto. It’s a story-heavy, mechanically light RPG-ish game that, as far as I can tell, is all about twists that arise from even the most casual of decisions. (That was another reason that morning was strange; it’s not often you find time to sit and play a reflective indie RPG in the middle of a crowded conventional hall.)

There are no monsters, there are no aliens, and there are no world-ending apocalypses rearing their ugly heads. This is a game all about the decisions you make in your daily life which reach so far out of your view that you can’t possibly understand their impact. In fact, I would argue that this is a game you probably shouldn’t read anything else about until you play it yourself, but then I guess you also wouldn’t know if you would want to play it, so here we go.

The demo opens with a man and a woman in a dark alley. They quibble about a job of some sort, eventually revealing that you are meant to kill someone and she doesn’t want you to do it. As you, the ostensible assassin, push forward through her objections, a “vagabond” comes forward. His hood is up, giving up nary a detail of his identity, and casting a shadow over the gun he just pulled out. You pull out your weapon as well, and a standoff ensues. He offers up a deal: listen to the story he’s about to tell, or pull the trigger and he shoots the woman.

At this point, the first branching decision set comes up. You can either A) pull the trigger, B) run away, or C) listen. I choose to listen, and immediately begin to wonder what might have happened if I’d simply shot the man. Regret sets in, and that line between gaming and real life begins to blur, my personal litany of regrets growing by one and by many more throughout the demo. We fade out into a party scene.

Always Sometimes Monsters

Now you are in control of a man with poofed up hair and a blue jacket. I go around talking to a few people, understanding now that this is my party in my apartment. One woman I come up to says we should toast, but in his head he’s thinking that maybe he shouldn’t since his wife said one drink was enough for tonight. A second choice (and another what-if) comes up, and I decide to say to hell with it and agree to the toast. The woman says great, that she’ll go get both her spouse and the toasting beverage from the patio, and now I’m in control of the woman.

I walk her around and chat up a few people, nothing amounting to much more than party chitchat. I step outside and survey the scene. There’s a man with sunglasses in the far corner standing next to a boombox with a large clump of people between us. To the right are a few people milling about and interspersed are many more just standing and talking. All in all, it looks like a regular ol’ non-college-blackout-drunk party, but a question briefly paralyzes me: how am I supposed to know who my significant other is?

To a certain degree, I assume I’m looking for a man (a heteronormative assumption, I know, and I’m sorry and I still feel bad about it), but for some reason or another, I decide to walk up to a woman in the middle of the patio first. And she greets me as her wife. My mind is quickly atwitter. My relatively short list of “hmm, I wonder” internal debates just exploded into a fireworks display of possibilities. After signing the gift for the indigo fellow (and subtly inserting the gaming option to name the two characters as Erin and Paige), I realized, still in a daze, that I had just seemingly picked of my own free will my own character and my character’s spouse.

Always Sometimes Monsters

This is interesting for several reasons. First and foremost, it treats a person’s sexuality as pure fact. There was no pomp and circumstance surrounding the fact that my female character was married to another female character, just as it should be. They are people all the same, albeit digital, and they should be treated as such. I loved—loved—this moment.

Second, it sets the tone for the rest of the demo. These are decisions made so casually that heavily impact the rest of your experience, a mirror to how real life works. If you’ve ever wondered what would have happened if you’d said yes just that one time or if you’d skipped school that one day but your dismissive “no” or “I probably shouldn’t” could have been the pivotal moment that landed you exactly where you are now, then you know exactly the territory this game trades in.

After a short conversation with the host and your wife, I find that he’s a publisher and I’m a writer and now he’s going to get me set up with a publishing deal. Huzzah! Unfortunately, the scene fades out and fades back into a small one-room, somewhat trashed apartment. Erin is waking up alone with nothing more in her possession than some microwavable pizza pouches (which I get to actually microwave) and several notes slipped under her door. My rent is overdue and a friend has a job waiting for me. My wife, clearly, has left me.

Always Sometimes Monsters

I step out of my apartment and bump into my neighbor, an elderly woman. She asks me if I could help her clean her place in anticipation of having some people over later, but I decide it’s more important to go fulfill a duty already promised (plus the other obligation was a paying one). I promise to come back and help and go downstairs. I try to sneak past my landlord’s door, but he comes out and demands the five hundred dollars I now owe him. As he takes away my key and I make more promises regarding a late publisher’s check, I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed to help clean that woman’s apartment.

The demo goes on from there, and it’s a lengthy one, so I won’t keep detailing the intricacies of my poor decisions and ensuing regrets, but this is definitely an interesting game. Remember that guy I said was standing by the boombox at the party? He later shows up as a bouncer trying to keep me out of a club. What would have happened if I’d talked to him first instead of my wife? What if I’d pulled the trigger instead of chosen to listen to the vagabond’s story? What if, what if, what if…

Most interesting, perhaps, is that every choice offered to you seemed genuine. Each one was unique for each branching moment you encountered, but they were only just so in their skewed perspectives. Amirkhani calls it an “ethical compass,” which feels exceedingly accurate. Instead of going on either end of a binary choice, the needle points just a little bit more one direction than another. Perhaps both of your options are lies, but they both feel right though you know each one can only lead you down one path.

Always Sometimes Monsters

Sitting in the middle of 70,000 people, leaning into a laptop as I read and hang on every worth coming out of these pixelated people’s heads, I realize that this is a bit odd. The entirety of the Ubisoft booth seems dedicated to stabbing pirates while the sounds of Titanfall dribble in from every corner of the Washington State Convention Center, and I just sat there, wondering why Paige left me, regretting ever agreeing to that damned toast.

Look for Always Sometimes Monsters in 2014 for PC.

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Gone Home Review: Deep Inside

Gone Home

Gaming nomenclature has changed a lot since the industry’s inception. Entire genres that didn’t exist have cropped up and the idea that 3D didn’t just mean rasterized polygons has only recently been challenged with 3D-capable televisions and devices like the Oculus Rift. The one that’s most fascinating, however, is how we talk about completing a game.

Back when the task of playing a game was the unequivocal challenge of overcoming a series of obstacles that tested your skills (or quarter reserves or closing time of the local arcade or whatever), “beating” a game made sense. You beat that level, which in turn led to you beating the game. The word itself represented your ability to dominate the walls laid before you, to virtually climb them. You won, you defeated, you etc’d your way to the end of a litany of difficulties purposefully put in your way.

There are games now, though, that have a challenge beyond the twitch shot and the instinctive dodge. They exist less as a test against your mettle and more as a list of things to be done, a stack of checkboxes that, when ticked, sets off a series of experiences that culminates in you thinking of or feeling something. To The Moon. Dear Esther. Proteus. It wouldn’t be right or appropriate to say you “beat” any of these games. You wouldn’t say you beat that recipe for cheesecake, would you? The difference is that you don’t know that you’re making a cheesecake.

The question, then, is how to review a game of that sort? The already subjective nature of reviews (if you subscribe to the camp that reviews are, in fact, personal critiques and not objective buy-this-don’t-buy-that placards to be hung on a wall, which you should because the latter is absolute nonsense) is put even further under the lens of introspection. These games make you consider things outside of the game and move your contemplative state to yourself, examining why and how they managed to shake you up and let your emotions bubble over.

Gone Home, the first release from the Portland-based indie quartet The Fullbright Company, fits into this mold, but like any game that falls under that banner, it pushes and breaks through its bounds and forces you to reconsider a multitude of preconceptions about both the game and the medium as a whole. If contorted properly, Gone Home could fit within the confines of a first-person adventure game where pick things up and uncover secrets, but it quickly shatters such a constricting framework.

The entire game takes place within a single house in Portland, Oregon, one that you come home to after a year abroad in Europe. It’s 1995, you are Kaitlin Greenbriar, and you’ve arrived at a mysteriously empty house. The front door is locked, but there’s a note on it. Light flickering and rain pouring down outside, you see that it is addressed to you. It’s from a person named Sam, and whoever he or she is, they’re sorry for not being there to see you. But they’ve gone missing, and they don’t want you to find them.

Gone Home

This opening bit establishes much of what you’ll come to expect from Gone Home. All you have control-wise is WASD to move and the mouse to look, but you can press C to crouch and Shift to zoom. Much of what lies around you is interactive, so you can turn on and off the light, pick up and examine a cup, and open drawers and cupboards. And almost everything is of such a high fidelity in regards to texture that zooming in to read the letter is both natural and effective.

But the purpose of this scene is to set up what the game gives you, which is to say ample opportunity to connect and uncover all the dots you want. Only through looking at your baggage tags, for instance, do you know when, where, and who you are. Only through inference and context clues can you determine that Sam is either your brother or sister. It’s so incredibly important to the game that you pay attention to everything around you.

Its presentation, though, is what kills every single part of me. This house and this time and these people are so completely and disgustingly real that I felt almost voyeuristic in exploring this empty mansion. But a couple swift and neat narrative tricks (this is, after all, Kaitlin’s first time in this house, too) in the beginning implores and imbues you with the sense that this is your home because you family lives—or maybe lived—here. And eventually it felt like rediscovering a past that I’d long since forgotten, even though it was something I never knew to begin with.

Gone Home

Perhaps it’s because I grew up a child of the 90s. Born in 1987, a lot of the things strewn about the house are familiar to me: television listings with certain shows marked (Boy Meets World!), an abundance of VHS tapes labeled to denote pirated broadcast versions of my favorite movies, and so much more. There’s an old school answering machine, but still notes are left around the house with missed call messages. Glow in the dark stars are stuck to part of the ceiling. It triggers every single nostalgic mouse trap in my brain, snapping and popping not memories but emotions, not moments but experiences.

Still, the age of Kaitlin is far beyond what I was in 1995, but I did—err, still do—have a sibling. An older sister, in fact. So some of the bits and pieces of the relationship between Kaitlin and Sam (and definitely between them and their parents) ring many bells, some sharp and crisp while others are kind of fuzzy as if someone dampened their sound with a mitten. But the words delivered by each of the characters delivered by paper and voice in this odd and moving narrative are so realistic and pointed and purposeful and heartbreaking and like little nuggets of gold that I want to horde and never share with anyone.

It’s really hard to talk about this game without ruining it because the very act of playing it is what unravels the thread. You start pulling and keep pulling until the wrap is bare, and each little sliver of previously hidden secret becomes aired fact. Those are the checkboxes. Those are the steps to your cheesecake. Every single one runs in sequence and is intensely necessary. I can’t imagine skipping anything the game offers you because each missed element diminishes the final product. It’s not like choosing not to go after a piece of intel or picking up an audio log. These are the bricks and beams of the house’s foundation, and you don’t want to let it crumble.

Gone Home

But it’s also incredibly hard to ruin an emotion. I can tell you what it feels like to feel overjoyed and gutted all at once but you just won’t know what I mean until you feel it, too. And you may not even feel what I felt. Scott Nichols over at GameFront didn’t just draw parallels with the game’s story; he practically lived parts of it (it’s a bit of a spoilerish review, so maybe don’t read it until after you’ve played). Some folks I talked to that don’t have sibling experienced entirely different emotions than me by the end. It’s not like “I felt great after I finally shot the terrorist to save the world.” It’s a lot more someone reached into your heart, grabbed whatever they could find, and just started squeezing, ripping their way in.

That’s perhaps because there are so many stories to keep track of. This is a complex family with complex issues and full lives, each their own. This is not a video game family where everything they do focuses on your existence. You begin to unearth stirring secrets kept from each other, lingering love left unspoken, and so much more. Every person in the house and out of it, some not even in the same state, all have their own story that you begin to follow through crumpled up pieces of trash, bottles stashed away from view, and notes best hidden from prying eyes.

The agency afforded you as a player, though, is perhaps the greatest achievement in Gone Home. By allowing you to explore and discover at your own will, it gives the feeling that you own this particular story, that no one else will have this exact same experience. It made me feel like consequence outside of the game had permeated my play, where at any moment Sam could come through the door and ask why the hell I left all those lights on or why I didn’t close the front door. Whenever I picked something up, I would put it back exactly where I found it, an action facilitated by being able to click over where an object originated so it’ll snap back to its home. And if I found a lid off of a box, I would put it back. Every cabinet door closed.

Gone Home

Maneuvering things in this simplistic control scheme felt immensely powerful. If I picked up a purse, under it would be a pamphlet. If I picked up the pamphlet, under it would be a half torn note. And when I put it all back, Kaitlin would arrange it with the purse standing, pamphlet folded, and note half stashed away. It told me so much about both Kaitlin and the owner of all three objects. And good god, when you first pick up a cassette and put it in a cassette player.

Some problems certainly crop up, though. In the moment, it definitely felt odd that some notes would be lying about unattended to for over eight months. Why are there locked doors gating off major parts of the house like the dining room and laundry room? And by the end, it felt as if the overall story had pulled a few punches instead of going as far off the normative trail as the rest had gone, but what an incredibly paltry and inconsequential list of complaints for an otherwise breathtaking game.

Gone Home

How do you review a feeling? How do you put down into words with our finite alphabet something as grand and infinite as the human heart? A review that tells you what parts of a game work and don’t work can inform you if you want to take cover and shoot dudes or build cities in this particular way, but a review that tells you exactly which emotions it put in a cup, stirred, and poured out onto your porch holds value to exactly one person: the one who wrote it. All I can say that you should play Gone Home see if it can do the same for you. All I can say is that I didn’t beat Gone Home, but I certainly did finish it, but it’s far from finished with me.

+ Incredible detail for what made the 90s such an incredibly weird and amazing time (fuck yeah X-Files)
+ Ambient storytelling that scares, angers, and inspires you one at a time and all at once
+ An explicit narrative that is going to burrow deep inside of you and stay there for a long, long time
+ Sweet, sweet 90s punk music
– Some incongruous, anachronistic bits pertaining to the Sam story

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Gone Home
Release: August 15, 2013
Genre: First-person story exploration
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Players: 1
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.gonehomegame.com/

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QuakeCon 2013 Hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online

QuakeCon 2013 Hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online

The last time I played The Elder Scrolls Online, the upcoming MMO set in The Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel, it was rather nondescript. It wasn’t bad, but it also didn’t feel especially noteworthy in any particular aspect aside from its attachment to its namesake franchise. I’d even left my anemic page of notes untouched and didn’t bother writing about it, lest my preview contain the sole words “it’s an MMO” and an anecdote about how my character model was at some point a tree.

Things, however, have changed, and changed for the better. You could still quickly sum it up as “Skyrim as an MMO,” but now I find that lacking. There are bits and pieces to where it feels significantly different from many other experiences and feels much more like what made The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the success that it was.

You start off immediately with the character creation process wherein you put in your name, pick your race and class, and futz about with a bevy of sliders, including one for your posterior. I chose a female Argonian Dragon Knight, named her Walterja Matthausus, randomly tweaked her appearance, and I was well on my way.

The Elder Scrolls Online

I (and the handful of other press members) was dumped into what appeared to be a house with an objective to talk to a Captain Rana of the Ebonheart Pact, presumably the woman in front of me where half a dozen other people are clumped together. I spoke her and she offered me up three ways to complete an investigation into some untoward oddities in the land of Bleakrock. I picked the one that sounded the furthest away and set off.

I did, however, engage Rana in conversation before leaving. I asked her about the various races of the land. When I asked her about the Argonians, she laughed at the idea of someone asking about their own race. Another press member told me that as a Nord, Rana said that it was “just like a Nord” to ask about himself. It’s a small touch but also very much appreciated in a genre about size and multitude.

As soon as I stepped outside, I opened up my character screen and set up my skills. Instead of deeply branching, constellation-based trees like in Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online offers a much more straightforward approach where you unlock a steady, downward progression of abilities in several different categories. As you use them, they level up until they’re able to mutate, at which point you choose one of two directions to go with them. It’s kind of like how powers in Mass Effect would evolve into one of two versions. I unlocked Slam, an ability that both knocks down an enemy and interrupts their attack, and assigned it to the 1 key.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Along my trek to my main story goal, several more goal markers popped up on my map in the lower-left corner of my screen. And a couple people ran right up to me and asked for my help. It reminded me very much in how Skyrim worked with the Radiant AI system. More so, my quest log eventually reached scrollable lengths, perhaps the greatest single indicator of this being an Elder Scrolls game.

One such quest was to hunt down a great beast that almost downed a hunter. He’d come to affectionately (and not-so-creatively) call it Deathclaw, but I called it a chance to try out the combat. The quest led me to this little gully that was filled with giant bones and wolves. I dove in headfirst and clicked frantically on the closest wolf. Holding the left mouse button would generate a stronger, slower attack while holding the right mouse button would allow me to block and mitigate damage. Casting Slam took a lot of stamina, a familiar resource that can also be taken up by sprinting and dodging by double-tapping a WASD key (one of many additions since the last time I played), but it kept the wolves down and unable to hurt me.

I then slipped into first-person mode and fought for a while like that, and it immediately felt 100% more like Skyrim and the other Elder Scrolls games, including crouching and sneaking and slashing like a god damn Slap Chop. The only difference was that it took what felt like a few too many hits to get an enemy down. As I progressed through the demo and reached level five, level two enemies would still take a while. While the combat of Skyrim was never anything to write home about, The Elder Scrolls Online’s mechanics certainly feels much more like an MMO than anything else. It just looks like Skyrim now.

The Elder Scrolls Online

That’s not to say, however, that it’s bad. Being a mobile and agile character allowed for at least some tactical maneuvering; coming out of even these small scale skirmishes untouched made me feel like a god. An interesting wrinkle that I noticed when fighting bears was that when they reared up to do their attack, a sort of vision cone would appear on the ground, showing where I was liable to be damaged when they struck. The same went for when archers would do their raining blows from above and litter the ground with arrows. Seeing and not just guessing where such attacks were coming in from definitely put a focus on movement, which is a nice change from standing there and clicking until RSI set in.

The quests also didn’t feel like traditional MMO “go here and kill things to collect things to bring back to a dude” quests. There still were some of those, but there was at least a layer on top of them that made them feel much more than that. For example, once you return to Captain Rana with your concluded investigation, you must gather up the locals and evacuate the town from an impending assault. So when you have to travel about and find three people turned into skeevers to transform them back into humans or clear out some wolves, it feels like it has purpose.

Two quests in particular stand out, though, as uniquely Elder Scrolls events. The first involves acquiring a bandit outfit, disguising yourself, and sneaking around to collect evidence. When you have to enter a mine, you can’t even continue forward unless you’re disguised and the gatekeeper thinks you’re part of the group. If you slip up, you’re likely to die as there are many, many enemies around that would love to stab you over and over. If you die, though, it’s not that big of a deal as you can simply choose to revive there or transport to a nearby settlement.

The Elder Scrolls Online

The other quest involved entering an icy cave to rescue someone. Supposedly, he had been taken hostage by a Frozen Man, some crazy fellow with magical powers. You had to go about this bear-infested cave to collect evidence as to who he was until you finally confront him in his frozen chamber. At first I thought I was going to have to literally guess his name by typing it in or something, but instead he just creates two extra instances of himself and you have to attack the one you think is real. I couldn’t quite grok how you were supposed to tell it was him, but I got it on the second try anyways.

There is also a sense of permanence in regards to the game. You are given a choice at any point to evacuate the town before collecting all 15 missing persons, so those absent folk will always be gone from your game. And once you start the evacuation, the attack from the Daggerfall Covenant begins and, it seems, everything spontaneously combusts into fire and pain. It makes me wonder how they’ll handle showing different versions of the same area to multiple players, but I was told they’ve got it handled.

The Elder Scrolls Online has very much the veneer of an Elder Scrolls game. Over the course of the two-hour demo, I collected and equipped several weapons, each stronger than the last; I killed a man’s livestock just to see what would happen (he yelled a lot); and I spent a lot of time in menus talking to people and wonder what I could craft (also, yes, crafting exists). The parts of MMOs that have largely turned me away from the genre seem to have been painted over with a healthy coat of Bethesda and ZeniMax sheen. Some of the problems still poke through like prolonged, tedious combat loops and a few generic fetch quests, but I think I’m finally excited to jump back into the world of massive player numbers.

Look for The Elder Scrolls Online sometime in the future.

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Rogue Legacy Review: It’s Hereditary

Rogue Legacy

I’ve never experienced quite an equivocal exchange of commitment. From every front, I’m required to put in and stick with as much as I’m getting back, whether I want it or not. Rogue Legacy is such an immensely refreshing change from games that are fine with the occasional half-assedness from you. Instead, it adheres to its own set of rules like the stickiest of tape, as if a super glue factory exploded all over a duct tape plant and it was all rubbed down with wet Jolly Ranchers.

Rogue Legacy is a 2D action platformer from Cellar Door Games (so beautiful) in the roguelike-like or, if you prefer, a roguelite tradition in the sense that death of the character you play is permanent as you attempt to explore a randomly generated arena, but you do get continual progression and there is an end to it all. You see, you play as one of many along a line of generational heroes. Each time your hero dies in the castle, you get to pick one of three heirs to get back in there and defeat the bosses those stony walls contain. You keep all the loot you find, but the castle layout and the abilities of your hero change.

You will be seeing a lot of changes. The few constants are that you pass by several merchants/helpers before you enter the castle (you spend gold to upgrade your equipment and magic and whatnot), the Greek ferryman of the dead Charon will demand all of your unspent gold before entering, and you will pass by a giant, ominous golden door and a table with a journal on it before you get to the random stuff. Everything else is up in the air.

On average, I’d say each run of mine ran just under 10 minutes. At first, they rarely went longer than five or six, but as I went along and learned how to play, I definitely and slowly dragged that number up. Your overall goal is to defeat four bosses within four areas of the castle (like a forest and a dungeon) and then go about defeating the final dude behind the aforementioned golden door. You’ve got a sword and some magic, but the majority of your early attempts will be spent taking damage rather than spending it. It’s definitely not an unfair game (otherwise I never would have improved), but it is difficult. In the end, I took over 100 runs before conquering the castle.

I never minded, though, because Rogue Legacy moves so fast. The characters and enemies themselves don’t move exceptionally quick—at least not for a 2D platformer—but your view is cropped in to where you and everything else can cover so much screen real estate in a single move. It, along with how quickly you and your foes can die, gives the entire ordeal a great immediacy. Your control over your hero is razor sharp to the point where maneuvers like downward striking a platform to expand it while throwing daggers out at an angry floating portrait is fully within your learned competency.

That competency will expand, too, as you play in very discrete, tangible ways. Gold that you collect can be spent on unlocking new abilities like double jumps and new armor and weapons and so much more. (If you equip multiple of the same rune, effects stack, so you can quintuple jump if you want.) The fact that the drawbridge toll exacted by Charon happens every time really puts an emphasis on character progression that will lead to story progression since purchases, for the most part, are permanent. It’s a move-it-or-lose-it philosophy that keeps the pace up even when you aren’t fighting flying eyeballs and moaning zombies and encourages you to spend both frivolously and wisely. Dying is more of a chance to try something new instead of starting over.

Rogue Legacy

This is in combination with unlocking entirely new classes (you start out with low level stuff like knaves and barbarians), all of which have their own unique attributes. Barbarians have high HP, for example, while miners can collect more gold. But you also start finding new genealogical traits you can develop. Some of your offspring will have endomorphic or ectomorphic body types which change how knockback affects them; others will be colorblind or have extreme nostalgia and alter how you see the game; and some will have intrinsic strength or HP advantages or disadvantages.

You’ll start to see where Rogue Legacy really commits, like when you get an heir with dyslexia or vertigo. These are not inconsequential hereditary attributes even though some may seem like that do very little. Certain combinations can be really enabling and give you a good run and others will leave you in a tough spot. It’s pretty great, especially when you have no idea what most of them do.

Rogue Legacy

It’s a lot of fun simply exploring what Rogue Legacy has to offer because there’s just so much. Picking up and reading journals from your dead ancestors is neat, but all the little touches and drastic changes that you feel emerge right in front of your eyes really keeps you going. The problem is when this goes away with every attempt on the final boss of the game. The door is right at the beginning, so exploration and making runs start to really feel like a chore when you run by your singular objective over and over again. The rest of the game, though, manages to instill a very passive flow of difficulty, so it often feels like you’re exactly where you need to be.

You will notice a bit of repetition in the game, though, in regards to music and graphics. Enemies often look recycled and resized while the game loops like the same three songs (they are, however, super catchy). Rooms will eventually repeat, but that’s kind of standard in most modern roguelikes. All things considered, though, these are mostly meaningless quibbles. As soon as you notice these problems, you’re already on your way to another adventure.

Rogue Legacy

I guess that’s what I like most about Rogue Legacy. You know, besides the fantastic sound design (those enemy sounds, man), sublime and nuanced progression mechanics, and crazily taut gameplay. I just really like how quickly the game makes you move. Even though you may come across moments where you can take a breather and reflect on your fifth straight hour of neglecting the outside world, they’re quickly stomped out and wiped away with an urge to see what else is out there and what you’re capable of. It wants you to commit to playing the game just as much as it commits to making everything feel consistent and nuts all at the same time. And I think I can oblige.

+ Plays incredibly well; you never feel cheated out of accomplishing something
+ The entire package is quite charming, from the graphics to the animation to the hooks-in-the-brain tunes
+ Progression takes an RPG slant in a roguelike framework and it is totally engrossing
+ It commits to every joke it makes, no matter how inane or inconsequential
– Enemies repeat, and bosses are just bigger enemies

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Rogue Legacy
Release: June 27, 2013
Genre: Action platformer
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $15
Website: http://www.roguelegacy.com/

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You Should Probably Play Soundodger

Soundodger

Dancing used to be a whole-body sort of thing. All the way from your head to your toes, the entirety of your being was locked in a compulsive engagement to a rhythm. Whether you looked like a corporeal dream floating across the floor or like someone who missed the point of that episode of Seinfeld, all that mattered was that every inch of you is dedicated to the single task of moving to the music.

Jump to a café with a live band and an America where dancing is frowned upon in any place that isn’t a wedding or an ecstasy-fueled nightclub. It feels almost dystopian in that way where something so natural has been reduced to an regal or illicit affair, so now with this real life musical act in your face, your rhythmic, physical expression of vitality is stuck to hand waving and head bobbing as you sit in a chair. And now when the majority of the world is locked in step toward an inevitable end of working office jobs every single waking hour of the day while your weekends are relegated to suppressing every dream and passion you’ve ever had, no one even has time for that much frivolity.

Enter Soundodger. While that may be a depressing lede into a rather good game, it’s appropriate because it is a further distillation of dancing. Not even much hand waving goes on as it’s really just your mousing hand that moves. Soundodger is a free Flash rhythm game developed by Studio Bean (or rather the one man behind Studio Bean, Michael Molinari) for Adult Swim Games, though it originated during GDC’s 2013 Experimental Gaming Workshop. In it, you move your mouse cursor around a little circular arena as you dodge sound.

Beats and melodies in each song (made by folks like Disasterpeace of Fez soundtrack fame and Lifeformed of Dustforce) are represented by triangles that form around the ring of your navigable area before shooting in towards the center and following out once more. They’ll sometimes fly right through the middle and sometimes they’ll flow around in their own dance, undulating in and out and around as you do nothing more than sit idly by and watch the beautiful Doritos go about their symphonic business. And sometimes they won’t even be triangles.

As you do this and successfully avoid these aggressively mobile shapes, you earn points, and you don’t earn points when you either collide with one or if you click down and hold your mouse button to enter a bullet time mode. The view zooms in ever so slightly and pans around with your movements, giving even the slowed down version of the game a sense of kineticism. Some songs even sound better when you begin to futz around with the electro synth chiptune beat.

The points you get (which are really just a cumulative percentage of successful sound dodging) unlock more songs, but they are further representative of the core tenant of the game, which is to not mess up the song. Feel it, enjoy it, whatever, but the important thing is to not hit the triangles because you will cause the song to skip and hitch and generally sound bad. And it’s almost definitely your fault.

Soundodger

I say that because it never felt like the shapes were necessarily attacking me (save for the diamonds that actively sought out conflict, those bastards). Instead, it felt more like I was within the song and it was my duty to let it spin on. And it’s easy enough to do once you get in the right mindset. Soundodger is definitely less about using your visual acuity and finely tuned reaction time to avoid things as they come and more about feeling the song.

If you play the game right, it feels a lot like dancing. There are no wrong moves in dancing. You don’t even have to move to the beat, but it definitely helps, and that’s what Soundodger is like. The best early example is perhaps “Distant Stars” by Sonic. The early section provides a rigidity that gives you something to musically latch onto, moving in staccato bursts along to a very hard beat. Then whirling circles of triangles flow out to you and encircle you, forcing you move among their little auditory corrals. And after that, dual streams of triangles will come at you, one shooting straight and the other curling back again. They will rapidly fire at this point, urging you along a larger arc of graceful circumnavigation. There’s no wrong way to do all of this, but sticking to the beat is almost mandatory (if you want to make it easier on yourself, anyways).

The difficulty also moves along at a relatively pleasant pace (that’s what the little circles next to track names are for). Whenever you think you’ve got a handle on the game, it will take it up a notch and make you miss such simple times. The problem that arises (though it is also present in the rest of the game) is that when you invariably mess up and hit a note, the game does this record scratch thing where your view twirls and blows up and the song hitches, slows down, and spins back up. It is jarring to say the least and often times leads to subsequent mistakes due to the re-engagement. It’s a real downer.

Soundodger

But for that one thing, Soundodger does so many more things right. It’s no wonder this was all anyone talked about last week. You no longer have to embarrass yourself with sit down dancing let alone real dancing. Now all you need are two ears and a hand. And a mouse, I guess, along with a working computer and Internet connection, but whatever. Soundodger is a fun little game, and for best results, just add dubstep.

Seriously, don’t stop playing until you hit a dubstep song.

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Gunpoint Review: Short Grift, Long Con

Gunpoint

Tom Francis is a writer. He’s been one for quite some time, having spent more than a few years as an editor over at PC Gamer. As a consequence of such a profession, he has probably played and forgotten about more games in his career than you’ve thought about buying in your entire life. He’s likely encountered trash that you would look at and assume it came from a box of cereal. He’s found gems so far off the radar that convincing anyone to give them a go would be like asking someone to give you their foot.

He also made a game. After teaming up with a couple artists and a few musicians, Francis made Gunpoint, a 2D stealth game about a freelance spy named Richard Conway. After being found in some less-than-desirable circumstances that would lead the authorities to believe he killed a woman (he didn’t), Conway gets caught up in some Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest level of backstabbing and flimsy loyalties. Aside from an above average talent for casual snark, Conway is just a regular dude who dies from single bullet wounds. But he does have a pair of hypertrousers that allow him to jump super high and fall from any height as well as a thing called a Crosslink, a device that allows him to rewire pretty much any piece of electronics.

It’s worth noting that Francis is a games journalist because Gunpoint is—if nothing else—a streamlined experience. It screams of the tastes of a man who has played so many video games now that cutting away the cruft in his own game seems like the only sane thing to do. Your mission briefs are short and to the point and yet still totally skippable at the press of a button; rather than committing to any particular upgrade and forcing you to grind for more money, you can simply refund those that you don’t want to buy the ones you do; and death is nothing more than a mouse click-sized speed bump on your way to the end. After years of being forced to watch cutscenes and listening to NPCs teach you how to use new techniques and devices and find discrete save points before quitting, Francis saw fit to rectify all that in Gunpoint.

Which makes the sentiment that those decisions are a shame quite odd. There’s just so much to like about Gunpoint that shortening it to a three-hour experience seems wasteful. First off, the writing is genuinely entertaining. All of the dialogue takes place in little text speech bubbles and smartphone chat, the latter of which allows you to choose response options and recap the case file. Conway can often choose between agreeable, frank, and sardonic dialogue options, all of which lean into painting a rather interesting portrait of man who loves trenchcoats and espionage. The story itself can get a bit loose and becomes somewhat unraveled towards the end, but the act of ingesting it plenty of fun.

The music is also superb, though it feels a bit disjointed. This seems like the inevitable end to working with three different composers for the game, but the individual elements are still good ear candy. There is smooth and sleek old school spy jazz going on in some parts (in what might best be described as “smoky”) and there is excellent upbeat, frenetic music in others, but none of that or anything in between feels like part of a cohesive aural whole. It’s still good, though, and maybe worth downloading from Bandcamp.

As for the gameplay, Gunpoint is easier to talk about because it is unequivocally good. You move about with WASD, but they also provide contextual use for interacting with your environment, so hacking, going up and down stairs and elevators, and generally doing things is easy and intuitive in the same way just holding your stick towards your objective in Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine felt right. Holding down your left mouse button allows you to charge your super jump and reveals a trajectory arc similar to what you would see when you throw a grenade in a first-person shooter. Doing so affords you the ability to jump up and cling to walls and ceilings, tackle guards before punching them in the face, and diving into and out of windows like a badass.

Gunpoint

Save for the punching part (and using guns, once you can get your hands on one), all of that is vital to getting around the game, but only one thing could possibly trump locomotion as a requisite utility: the Crosslink. It’s a device you can buy that allows you to flick up on your mouse wheel to highlight all the electronics in any given level and allows you to connect them as you so desire. So if you want to make it so a hand scanner opens a door that knocks out a guard, you can do that. If you want to turn off a light and then make it so its switch electrocutes anyone who turns it on, you can do that, too. It’s a wonderful system that allows you to poke and prod at a system of interacting rules and objects that appeals to your inner rulebreaker and tinkerer more than anything.

The rolling autosave feature plays into this idea; you’re never further than five, 10, and 15 seconds away from correcting a mistake and optimizing your run (better stealth ratings regarding violence, noise, etc. impact your rating and your earned monetary commission). This, however, makes the game feel egregiously easy. Well, this and the fact that everything like store and upgrade refunds and how towards the latter third of the game, the choices you make within the level feel a lot more linear and far less experimental. It got to the point where I kind of questioned why even bother putting so much thought into elegant solutions when quick, brute force ploys would work just as well. And at three hours of gameplay, that is a total shame.

It’s also a waste because I feel like so much more can be done with what Gunpoint has thus far set up with its systemic methodology of stealth and game world alterations. By the time Conway’s interesting but ultimately confusing story wraps up, you feel like the game is just barely scratching the surface of what is possible and what results can be achieved with further experimentation in level design. However, the level editor seems well suited for others to delve into that.

Gunpoint

Perhaps it’s because I’m a games writer, too, that I enjoy what Tom Francis & co. (though he solo’d the design, writing, and programming aspects) has created in Gunpoint. It’s a facilitated experience in ways that I find more agreeable than unfortunate, though the consequences of a quick and breezy run may rub you the wrong way harder than they did me. But the individual components, including a great look and fascinating gameplay hook, are irrefutably good, and I happen to find the end product greater than the sum of its parts. So go play Gunpoint why don’t ya.

+ A great but disjointed package of sights and sounds
+ The interactions with the world make sense and the hypertrouser jump is endlessly entertaining
+ Crosslinking things to make guards do dumb things and make me look like a god damn genius is great
– It might come across as too easy and too short for some people
– The story gets muddled in its latter half and results in me totally not caring about its conclusion

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Gunpoint
Release: June 3, 2013
Genre: Side-scrolling stealth action
Developer: Suspicious Developments
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $9.99
Website: http://www.gunpointgame.com/

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Further Exploration Of Typing And The Dead

Further Exploration of Typing and the Dead

Some of you may be too young to know what I’m talking about, but Paws Party was pretty cool. You probably won’t be able to find any information on it except anecdotes on various forums about playing a typing game about inviting animals to a shindig (one of which perhaps exemplifies how poor of a job it did at teaching the English language), but it did have a profound impact on my life. Compared to its contemporaries like Mario Teaches Typing, it was quite boring. It did, however, also teach me two important things: 1) I was pretty good at typing, and 2) cheating was fun.

I guess it wasn’t cheating so much as it was taking advantage of the game; if you typed roughly half the sentence placed before you and hit enter, the game would consider it done and, affording errors, would give you an inhuman GWAM, or gross words a minute. My teacher at the time (perhaps with her inability to comprehend technology and what it meant to use a keyboard) simply thought 500 GWAM was pretty good for a 3rd grader.

It seems like that was the only way to enjoy our typing lessons. Jamming out words and getting Paws’ party to actually happen wasn’t terribly difficult, but it was pretty interesting seeing who could intuit the proper breaking point of each sentence. It was a gamble each time as prematurely hitting enter would mean a hit in your GWAM, and our inter-class competition wouldn’t allow anything less than perfection. Not until later when we got fun typing games (no, not Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing) did we start to do things right.

But those typing games were always a hit, and it wasn’t just because they were thinly veiled educational products that were as close to a bonus indoor recess as we were going to get. Even faced with the prospect of playing Oregon Trail or that game with all the minigame puzzles in it, it was still a tough call as to what we were going to play. I have a feeling it’s because there’s something in the act of typing against some declining resource (time, health, party invitations, etc.) that speaks to us in a surprisingly primal way.

This is, of course, not an original notion. Just this morning, a post by Dave Cook over at VG247 detailed what it’s like to be part of the early transitional generation between the technologically illiterate and the “Digital Native.” I was on the receiving end of that transition with a predilection for things with screens and circuits, but I can still sympathize with his struggles because I know so many people like him. His write-up is called “Exploring the magnetic appeal of typing games” and is a fun read, but it definitely doesn’t explore much of anything except the timeline of typing video games. (You should still read it, though.)

He does, however, touch on it briefly: “I think it’s a real feat to take something that is now so natural and turn into something so enjoyable and challenging. Typing is – for many of us – a similarly essential part of everyday living, just like our ability to take a breath or walk.” But what does it mean for something to be natural to us? Likening it to breathing or walking seems like an apt comparison, but what is it about something so learned to become innate that makes it interesting?

Words, I believe, are the most efficient representation of pure thought we have. Hand gestures are vastly speedier but are also interminably vague; illustrations take time and some minimum level of skill; and other forms such as sculpture and music and film take resources and time and, once again, skill. That’s not to say words can’t be similarly demanding of your dwindling hours and already over-taxed brain, but you can butcher a sentence and still usually get the message across whereas drawing a squashed spider for a sun can barely suffice for an accident report let alone detailing the immense beauty of Swedish lake.

Swedish lake

Something anchored so deep within us can easily tap into our other core components. Much like how low-level hardware can quickly access other base parts like raw memory locations and I/O ports, something so ingrained like the utilization of a language can speak to our composite existence. Words can incite tears, start wars, and spark love. Words can even get you in a competitive mindset.

And what faster way to get your words out than typing. As digital natives, it can often feel like your brain is pouring out directly from the tips of your fingers and somehow showing up on your screen (though other times it may also feel like even 10 hands couldn’t possibly get your overactive prosaic mind under control). When you’re on a writing tear, it’s exhilarating and feels like you’re about to explode with possibilities. And when you’re stopped up, it feels like your entire brain has seized up, dammed up by an army of brain beavers.

It’s a primal part of our lives now. Typing, that is; words have always been a part of humanity, even when they were nothing more than splashes of berry juice on a cave wall. And like any other fundamental part of our being, it can be the basis of many competitive or leisurely endeavors. Hangman, crossword puzzles, and word searches are still played today. Wheel of Fortune has been airing for over 30 years now.

This works because it is such a low-level component for being a person. Communication is the basis for relationships, business, and most of our good time jollies. Much like walking is natural to us, many of our competitive sports involve running. And the purer we get—the closer we get to the basest form of locomotion—the more it grabs us by the collar and shakes us awake. This is why the 100-meter dash is one of the most popular events at the Olympics; people want to find out who is the best at simply being.

That’s why even bone-dry implementations of typing games are inherently fun, such as with Mavis Beacon, the gaming equivalent of unsauced pasta. We are putting a pure representation of ourselves out on the line and testing it. How fast can you actuate your utility for being known? Are you better at being human than the person next to you? Those games like Typing of the Dead set a baseline, challenging you with a standard. It’s a line in the sand saying you must be this good to exist, this tall to be a person.

Meeting some expectation can only get you so far, though. Records are made to be broken—or something like that. There’s this fun little HTML5 game that I came across when I was looking at native browser game frameworks, and this was a demo. It’s called Z-Type and you have to type corresponding words to destroy ships, so big ships require big words. There’s no end and no bar to overcome. It’s simply you trying to be better than what you were a year ago or yesterday or one minute ago. After all, what’s more competitive than and more primal than proving you’re a better person than you were before.

I suppose that’s why Notch’s Drop typing game made such a big splash. Rather than type sentences, it just asks you to type letters of incomplete words you’ve yet to fully see or comprehend. Spiraling further into some void and faster towards an inevitable end, it strips you down to a stark realization that you trying to representation yourself is a poorly optimized process. Rather than testing the tools in your toolkit, it’s asking you to test each drill bit and each nail and get down to the lowest circuit of your fleshy machine.

Or at least that’s my take on the whole thing. It’s something I’ve been marinating on for quite some time now. What makes a sport or game popular and compelling? There must be some reason certain activities seem to have a direct line to our core and tickle away at our sense of intrigue and competition. I quite like the idea that it’s because they’re based on things that make up our fundamental being and compose our base level of existence. It’s neat and stacks well, but who knows? I could be wrong. I guess you’ll have to use your words—your unflinching armaments of direct communication shuttled through your fingers to your keyboard to my idiot eyes and brain—to tell me just how wrong I am.

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All Along the Sanctum 2 Review

Sanctum 2

I don’t remember when I heard it first, but someone at some point years ago made the astute observation that as the video game industry matures, we’ll see more and more genre-bending games come out. It was a salient point that became more pertinent as time went on. Nowadays you see RPG elements like experience points and level-restricted gear in your first-person shooters and you see extensive combat systems in your platformers. Puzzles, even, persist through less traditional enigmatic environments, and as a result, it becomes harder and harder to describe games without writing a full treatise on their intended design: third-person point ‘n click action adventure game, real-time strategy Sudoku-inspired MOBA, etc.

Sanctum 2, however, makes it simple. Take one part tower defense and one part first-person shooter and cram them together with a nice sci-fi bow on top (there are aliens that want to destroy your oxygen supplies and you have to stop them. For humanity!). It sounds simple, but the result is much more complex and altogether better for it. It is a marked improvement over the original and manages to create a fast-paced, aggressive game that succeeds in so many more ways than it fails.

You pick from four distinct characters, each with their own expertise and specialized utility (and totally badass 90s anime-style character portrait, a milieu that persists through fantastic-looking but intrigue-lacking comic bookish cutscenes). Haigen Hawkins, for example, carries a shotgun and has above average health, so he’s perfect for getting in close and punishing mobs. SiMo, on the other hand, is a sniper rifle-wielding robot who gets bonus damage for hitting weakspots. These varying attributes combine in four-player online play to create this synergistic dependency that, should people play their parts, is rather fun.

Sanctum 2

That is should play their parts because it’s not necessary; the character differences are nearly drastic enough to require class-based play. Most of my mob control strategy resulted in getting in as close as possible and dumping ammo like it was British tea in the Boston harbor. No matter how hard I tried to keep in line with what my character was best at (sniping, bashing, fire-based crowd control), it always ended up the same.

That may just be a consequence of some rather smart game design decisions, though. The framework of the game is designed to funnel you into acting fast and shooting faster. For instance, you can only set down a limited number of towers, a fact that produces two design artifacts: 1) you find yourself more inclined to restructuring and refinancing your existing towers to optimize for the next encounter, and 2) you are forced to get down and dirty a lot more often. Enemies can also be lured away from their relentless trek by getting close, which opens up new avenues for crowd control tactics. Then combine that with how your weapons recharge and reload on their own when you switch between firearms. This means that you spend way less time running between cover and open engagements and instead just have to decide on your order of operations of death.

This does take away the old drama of reloading while aliens get uncomfortably close to the core you’re protecting, but it replaces it with the anxiety of wondering if you’re maximized output can fell a foe before it reaches your ward. Enemies like the Soaker (who, predictably, take a lot of damage to kill) seem specifically geared towards poking at this insecurity and this switch-focused design choice as each hit increases the damage take on subsequent shots. This does, however, sometimes result in your having cleared out the smaller, faster fodder enemies and are left with unloading on some slow, trundling creature. That gets kind of boring after 30 seconds of nonstop firing and zero seconds of strategic contemplation.

Sanctum 2

You can fill that time, though, with thinking about tower management, which can get quite deep. Instead of discrete upgrades, you can slowly build up towards more powerful towers one coin at a time. And then you can buy the lump-sum upgrades to drastically alter how your tower functions, like turning it into a rapid fire death node. This is especially exciting in the beginning when you are also constructing the maze that the hordes will walk through so you have to decide what is important first and where it would be not only most effective later but where it can mitigate your lack of walls now.

In between levels, you pop out to where you can view your unlocked perks and weapons and build your loadout. It’s fun to see some tangible rewards for earnest progress, but everything you choose actually has a very impact on your next encounter. You choose what weapons and towers to bring with you (yes, towers, so pick wisely because those airborne enemies can get troublesome) but also combine perks to further specialize your class. You can increase your weakspot damage or boost your movement speed. These are choices that actively change the way you experience any given level. The most trivial choice you make is perhaps your weapon loadout and even that is critical.

Which actually causes some trouble down the line. With such a dependence on pre-gaming the game, you find yourself locked in trial-and-error loops more often than you’d like and thus more frustrated than you’d want. And playing online can be fun, but a commensurate amount of effort has to be directed towards effective communication since resources are a free-for-all and one idiot can ruin the entire operation for everyone.

Sanctum 2

And while it’s understandable that the towers are rather standard tower defense fare, it’s rather disappointing that the player armaments are relegated to the standard shotgun, assault, and rifle classes. The enemies, too, find themselves disappointingly uniform, like when the larger baddies are simply, well, larger versions of the regular infantry.

Sanctum 2 has a generally rough feeling around the fringes, but the core is substantial and surprisingly refined. There are niggling problems of difficulty, occasionally game-ending glitches, and frumpy aesthetics, but the actual act of playing the game is so manic and strategic and wholly a fantastic combination of things you rarely experience together that it’s easy to look past all the small stuff. Sanctum 2 takes two simple concepts and turns them into a product greater than the sum of its parts. It just forgot to sand down the edges.

+ Creating loadouts of weapons, perks, and towers have real, tangible impact on your effectiveness
+ Combat flow is refined to allow for a much more manic pace yet strategic feel
+ Crafting the mazes that affect horde movement by hand requires thought and careful consideration of the future and the present
– You occasionally find yourself stuck testing and revising strategies that result in you pointlessly replaying levels
– For all its genre-mashing innovation, a lot of the forward-facing portions feel very generic

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Sanctum 2
Release: May 15, 2013
Genre: First-person tower defense shooter
Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $14.99 (1200 Microsoft Points)
ESRB Rating: T
Website: http://www.coffeestainstudios.com/games/sanctum-2

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Mind the Kerbals

Mind the Kerbals

I’ve never been to space, but I’ve died there a lot. Actually, I’ve died a lot between the ground and space, too. Most of those deaths, in fact, take place somewhere between zero and 100 meters off the ground. If you stacked all of my virtual corpses up on top of each other, it wouldn’t be hard to see how I finally achieved orbit. It’s a bit like an adorably green pyramid of terror, creating a thick base of stupidly failed launches, a mezzanine of admirable attempts, and a cherry or two of inexplicable success.

I’m talking about, of course, playing Kerbal Space Program, or KSP as the kids like to call it. Playable since mid-2011, KSP is still technically an “incomplete” game (it’s at version 0.19.1 and being constantly updated) but my god is it fascinating. Breathing deep, it’s an intoxicating aromatic blend of flight simulator, space exploration, and feeling simultaneously like a genius and the world’s luckiest idiot.

The goal of the game is to build various shuttles and pods and launch them into space with a few Kerbals—the inhabiting sentient species of the pseudo Earth you launch from—stowed away in the command capsule. Your homeworld is where you build everything as you take up more and more space inside your hangar with your increasingly ambitious and dangerously untested machinations, but there’s a whole galaxy beyond that. You can orbit the planet, land on the Mün (bonus points for the umlaut), or float off into the deep unknown.

The driving force behind it all is a significant and reliable physics engine. It still tends to suffer from the usual problems, which is to say that closely aligned parts will often wobble and shake to the point where you think you’ve better start to lay off the peyote, but it is amazingly robust. Everything from the mass of the fuel in your tanks affecting your efficiency to the gravitational interplay of adjacent celestial bodies to weight displacement impacting your alignment momentum is all simulated here, so when something fails, you never feel cheated. You just feel like a certifiable dumdum who just got a free lesson in physics.

What really makes this work, though, is the persistence of the entire world. The game’s name is severely and tragically appropriate because you are effectively building up the Kerbal Space Program. All of your mistakes and successes linger about in the world and remind you of things to do, things to avoid, and to not let your fingers absentmindedly hover over the keyboard lest you accidentally engage your stage two rockets 10 meters off the launch pad. If you crash land and some of your Kerbals survive, you will see them puttering about the planet, trying to find their way back to the base. If you leave some sort of rocket or strut in orbit, it will be waiting for you to crash into it on your next launch.

Of course, this also means pods and utilities you purposefully leave up in space will still be there as well. If you plan on building a Mün base, you can definitely do that. You just need to plan your landing trajectories accordingly so that you don’t have some sprawling mess on that cheesy surface or so you don’t crash into your one other successful landing. Or if you want to recreate the International Space Station, you can do that, too.

In fact, if you want to reenact the recent emergency spacewalk that took place a few days ago (and was streamed live to the Internet), you can do that, too. Your Kerbals are able to pop out at any time and rocket boost around with their limited fuel supply, latch onto ladders, and switch to other space vehicles. But once you lose one Kerbal to an impossibly strong gravitational well or to a fuel tank that wasn’t as full as you thought, it becomes a nerve-racking ordeal. You can see your lonely astronaut floating off into nothingness with no hope to be rescued or to achieve any elegant death (Kerbals don’t need food and seem perpetually terrified, excited, and confused). Floating off for more than a couple dozen meters is an anxiety ridden affair and only makes you want to hove close to the outer ladder so you can grab on. It is at point, however, necessary. Necessary and scary.

Most of what you do, actually, is terrifying simply because of the aforementioned persistence. With constant reminders of how easy it is to fail floating all around you, it’s impossible not to be scared of even attempting something beyond your grasp of knowledge and capabilities. The phrase is your reach exceeding your grasp, but in KSP‘s case, both are beyond your Kerbal’s tiny, lime green hands.

But that is also what makes your successes so god damn exhilarating. The mechanics are so simple and the data surfaced to you make it seem so straightforward (click, add maneuver, wait), but when everything requires precision and you are single-handedly operating what takes Captain Picard an entire bridge of people to do, it’s rare you feel anything approaching confidence. So when you finally achieve planetary orbit, you feel like cheering as if you just landed NASA’s Mars Rover on that dusty red planet. When you manage to land—land, not crash—on the Mün, it feels like you pulled off Armageddon’s asteroid landing 20 times in a row with a blindfold on from within a barrel going over Niagara Falls.

What I’m saying is that KSP succeeds at making the impossible possible but not by holding your hand. It simplifies the radically overwhelming realities of designing, launching, and controlling spacecrafts, but not to the point where it is a point-and-go system. It never lets your forget how many times you’ve tried, how many times you should have given up, and how many times you actually did walk away with a handful of Kerbals’ lives on the line.

And when it reminds you of all that (as well as how futile it is to even try with your horribly misaligned college degree and hazy memories of Bill Nye music videos), it very much makes you feel like you’re winning just be trying. You are Frodo in the middle of Mordor where everything is casually oppressive and wholly distressing and yet you still climb. You are Rudy, standing a foot shorter than everyone around you, a constant physical reminder of your diminutive worth, and yet you still play. It’s every underdog story you’ve ever heard and seen and subsequently loved. The only difference now is that you’re in control, and you’re the underdog. And you’re cheering yourself on.

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