Super quick look at Brutal Legend

So the hype for Brutal Legend was kind of off the charts running up to release, but suspiciously enough, there was a review embargo up right until launch day. That’s generally a bad sign.

And now that the embargo is lifted, reviews seem kind of mixed. Tom Chick at Fidgit loves the game, whereas Ars says it is “more opening band than headliner.” The metacritic score is hovering around 84 last time I looked, which is good, not great.

Everyone seems to think the voice talent is great and the theme of the game is a lot of fun, but where opinions diverge is in the actual gameplay and polish. I got the game yesterday and put in a couple of hours and thought I’d just share my very early experience. I opted for the Xbox 360 version since I knew Uncharted 2 was going to live in the PS3 for the next few weeks (and I’m too lazy to get up and switch disks)!

So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The game locked up tight on me once; I had to power down the Xbox manually — the controller had become unresponsive. This was early in the game, during the same content we played through in the demo. It only happened once, but it was still cause for concern. My only other real gripe is that the special moves that include another character seem finicky as heck. I just can’t seem to pull them off reliably and since they’re a 1 button press move, that shouldn’t be the case. I’ll also agree with Ars that, at least early in the game, friendlies and enemies look very similar, particularly in a big melee. Happily Clementine (protagonist Eddie Rigg’s guitar and ranged weapon) will happily auto-target bad guys for you.

Now some of the good stuff. I’ll join in on the love fest around the voice talent and the heavy metal theme. The music is awesome, of course, and even though I knew it was coming I still grinned ear-to-ear the first time Ozzie Osborne manifested in front of me and started a mumbling tirade. Very funny stuff. The world is weird and wonderful, too. Just roaming around finding things is a lot of fun. The hint system is brilliant, done via audio snippets of Eddie ‘thinking to himself.’ In fact at first you’ll think a hint is just random banter but the longer you remain stumped by something, the more explicitly hint-like this banter becomes, until Eddie just flat-out tells you what you need to do. It’s a nice system to keep things rolling along.

After a couple of hours playing I had to stop for the night and I was a bit disappointed to see my game was 14% complete already, so it seems the storyline isn’t very long. I’m told you can keep playing/collecting past the end of the main mission sequence. There’s also a multiplayer mode that I haven’t tried yet (I’ve heard it can spoil the plotline of the single player campaign so I’m going to hold off…multiplayer isn’t generally my thing anyway).

So my very early feeling is that this is a good game. I don’t think it’ll end up being Game of the Year material or anything like that. I’m glad I picked it up, but I’m equally glad that Amazon was giving a $10 gift coupon with the pre-order. $50 feels like a better price for this game than $60 does and probably it’s rental material. Put it this way, I’m looking forward to playing more tonight, but it isn’t the kind of game I can’t get out of my head.

I’ll check back in after I’ve got 8-10 hours in and report how things are going then.

The Hunt for a Bow (Demon’s Souls – PS3)

I’ve been playing a lot of Demon’s Souls but I feel oddly hesitant to blog about it. It’s a fantastic game that doesn’t translate well into spoken words and I fear that trying to describe it will put people off it.

But I’m going to tell you a story. Every time I start playing I have to decide what my goal will be for this session. Do I want to explore a new section of the world? Do I want to try to advance my character level? Do I want to buy a new spell? Gather materials to update a weapon? Or just get a new weapon? So many ways to improve a character.

In the first world lives a red dragon. This dragon is a real pain in the backside. There’s no way I can melee it at this point and my crossbow is too limited to fight it safely. But with a bow, you can do “precise aiming” and snipe things from afar. One problem. Drake Chaser the Soldier doesn’t own a bow. I decide the time has come for him to get one.

First thing I do is search online to find out where a bow can be had. That’s in some ways a downside to Demon’s Souls — you’ll almost certainly find yourself searching outside the game for certain nuggets of information. Turns out there’s a bow at the top of the second guard tower along a parapet extending from the area of the castle you ‘zone into’. So off I go.

But that damned dragon watches the parapet and does straffing runs along it. How to get past the beastie in one piece?

First step: get to the parapet. I have to cross a room filled with Hoplites. These look like giant black slimes holding a sword and shield. There was a time when they left me quaking in my boots, but now dispatching them comes easily. I block or dodge their spear attack, then run behind them and impale them. Turns out they’re quite squishy from the back. Or I could use fire on them, but no sense in using up my Turpentine supplies (turp adds a temporary fire effect to a weapon). I dispatch the hoplites, in the process earning some stones used in weapon upgrading. Bonus!

Finally I get to the parapet. The first time I ran out onto this, the dragon swooped down and fried me to a crisp, sending my back to the warp-in point sans all the souls I’d gathered. But I learned. I creep out onto the parapet until I hear the cry of the dragon, then jump back. If flies over me, covering the parapet with flames. I spring after it, knowing my stamina (sprinting uses stamina) will run out just as I get to the first tower. It does and I make it to safety just as the dragon makes another pass. I look back to see the wall of flame peter out mere feet from where I stand.

OK so I’m at Tower 1. This is as far as I’ve ever been. The stretch to Tower 2 is much longer and worse, there are plenty of enemies stationed along it, many behind barricades. I creep out of the shadows of the tower and the first enemy sees me. It attacks. I dodge backwards, then step forward and give it a hard attack with my spear as it tried to recover from its wild swing. I follow the strong attack with a quick jab and it’s down. I’ve faced this kind of foe before. I move farther out and hear the cry of the dragon. I duck back to see what happens, and sure enough it strafes this section of the parapet. Where once there were enemies and barricades, now there are corpses and splintered wood. Bonus? For some reason I get all the souls from the baddies the dragon killed.

But still, how to get to Tower 2? Growing impatient and careless, I start running along the parapet. The dragon attacks, my health drops precipitously. With a sliver left, I run back to the safety of the first tower. Eat some herbs to heal up. I decide to climb to the top of this tower to see what I can see, and when I do I notice stairs going down as well as up. What’s this? I follow and they lead to a tunnel running under the parapet from tower 1 to tower 2. I’m thinking “this is too easy” when a pack of wild dogs attacks. These things are hard for me for some reason. They tend to leap and circle behind me, making them tough to hit, particularly since I’m holding a spear and the tunnel is narrow. Hard to spin around with so unwieldy a weapon.

Once again I’m almost dead as the last dog finally perishes. More herbs, and I press on. There are plenty of other enemies along the way. Someone has left a message by a gaping hole in the wall. I stop to read it. It says “Nice view” (which it is). As I’m reading it, another dog attacks. Dammit. I fight him off, then backtrack and add my own message: “Beware of distractions.”

I finally made it to tower two, scrambled up and dispatched the few enemies at the top of it, and sure enough, found the bow! But now I’m feeling greedy and I want to know what’s in Tower 3.

There’s no tunnel: I checked. And again the dragon is strafing the parapet. Again it sweeps off the enemies for me. I run, listening for the sound of the beast. As it approaches, I tumble forward. Tumbling is a way to avoid attacks: while tumbling you’re invulnerable. I time it perfectly, the dragon’s flame washes over my harmlessly and I bob back to my feet and keep running. I’m so focused on listening for the dragon that I’m not really looking at what’s in front of me. Turns out right inside Tower 3 is a group of crossbowmen and a couple of knights.

Suddenly I look like a pincushion and my health is about half gone. I attack, skewering the crossbowmen, who go down fairly easily, but now I have the knights to deal with. I’d like to back up, but I fear the dragon behind me. I panic, try eating herbs but one of the knights rushes me (you’re totally vulnerable for a few seconds when eating a healing herb). Foolishly I back up, try again. The other knight rushes me. Almost dead now, I start to block and attack. The knights have shields and my spear held 1 handed has a devil of a time breaking through shield defenses. I should be fighting these guys with a sword held in 2 hands, using my strength to break through their defense. But I don’t have time to switch so my only chance is to get behind them.

I try to do that, circling and jabbing. Had there been one of them I’d be all right. Now my back is to the third tower…and I have no clue what is behind me. I’m afraid to back up. I’m trying to block. Blows rain down on my shield, draining my stamina. I stab futilely, but it’s too late. My stamina runs out, I drop my shield, and one of the knights delivers the Killing Blow.

YOU DIED fills the screen. And I’m back at the spawn in point with zero souls. The only way to recover what I’ve dropped? Go back out there, get past those knights and click on the bloodstain that is all that is left of my prior life. But the Hoplites are back. The wild dogs are back. The enemies on the parapets are back.

On the plus side, I still have the bow I went for! You don’t lose items when you die.

I’ll stop this story now and pretend I went back to the Nexus to rest. In truth I tried to get those souls back, but the 2nd time I didn’t time my tumble right and the dragon fried me on the parapet, killing me again, leaving a new bloodstain and erasing the first one, and all the souls connected to it.

Hopefully this tale illustrates some of what is great about Demon’s Souls. It’s a game that rewards patience, planning and skill. Had I followed my original game plan, I would’ve been fine. I got greedy and paid the price, and paying the price is why people say Demon’s Souls is so hard and unforgiving. There is a penalty for dying.

The proper course of action, I think, would’ve been to recover the bow, head back to stock up on arrows, and then kill the dragon, allowing me to cross to the next tower carefully, able to scope out what’s going on rather than running blindly across and depending on a very skilled (or very lucky) tumble to avoid the dragon’s breath.

That’s what I’ll try tonight except…turns out I don’t have enough strength to use the bow effectively! So first I’ll wipe out bunches of enemies and use the souls to increase my strength. Or maybe rather than killing the dragon I should learn a spell that protects me from flame. Hmm. I’ve heard there’s a ring somewhere that does the same thing. Maybe I should look for that? Decisions, decisions.

No matter what I decide to do, I know I’ll have fun. This is a great game!

Demon’s Souls & its brutal(?) difficulty (PS3)

Demon’s Souls for the PS3 arrived last Tuesday and it’s been the only game I’ve played since. That should tell you something. I wanted to wait until I’d logged 8 hours in the game before writing a post, though, because I thought I was missing something.

You see, all the previews, reviews of the Japanese versions and even reviews of the North American version have talked about the brutal difficulty level of the game, and I haven’t found it to be that hard. At least not so far.

I’m no uber gamer, either. Maybe there’s a big difficulty spike later in the game. Or maybe I picked the easiest class (Soldier). I dunno. Maybe I’m just old enough that I remember how hard games used to be. Or maybe my rather methodical style of gaming works well with Demon’s Souls.

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the game tremendously. Yes, you have to think. Yes, you have to advance carefully. And sure, you’ll die, but really the death penalty is pretty mild. Upon dying you lose all the souls (souls are currency) you’ve collected and restart the level with all enemies respawned. But you don’t lose your items, or your weapons or armor. Anyone remember Diablo? Dying there meant running back to your body naked if you didn’t have the presence of mind to drop some backup gear in town. That could be hard. And here, if you get back to where you died, you get all your souls back anyway.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s my MMO experience that’s making the game not seem as hard? MMO players are used to respawning enemies. We’re used to ‘pulling’ foes a few at a time when necessary. We’re used to respawning back at some pre-set spot when we die. And we’re used to having to replay areas of a game.

What does add to the challenge is that there’s no ‘bank’ to store your souls in. So when you’re saving up for something that costs 1000’s of souls…yeah, you start to think pretty hard about what would happen if you lost them all. But that’s what makes the game so exciting. You can replay levels/areas over and over again, so you have to make benefit-risk assessments. Should you play it save and replay a lower level area a couple of times? Or push into a difficult area where you’ll earn souls faster but you might lose it all? Hmmm.

Here’s what saves the game: combat is fun and satisfying. So when I say “replay a level” and you start thinking “Ugh, grindfest!” well, you’re wrong. In fact replaying easy levels is both good practice (you can practice some of the tougher moves) and a blast to do. It makes you feel mighty. Parry, riposte! Dodge & back stab. Block, shield smash and rush forward. It’s all incredibly fun. (Of course, if you don’t like the combat, the game is going to be awful for you.)

So now you have a sackful of souls. What are you going to do with them? You can: repair your gear, buy a weapon, upgrade a weapon or armor, buy a new spell, buy a new miracle, or level up your character (1 stat at a time). All progress comes from souls (there’s no concept of experience points here) so again, you have to make smart and sometimes tough choices. And for the most part, souls come from killing things. There aren’t any real quests, nor does anyone want to buy your rat skins or dog livers. Or even your old gear. If you can’t use it, just throw it away.

I guess I’m putting the cart before the horse here, going on and on about why I like the game without really explaining the basics. Now have I talked about the fascinating multiplayer system. The problem is, I can’t wait to get back to playing…so for now you’ll just have to find out the basics from the reviews linked to above!

Demon’s Souls preview

These days, with money as tight as it is, I don’t generally buy brand new games. $60 on launch day, $40 a month or so later when it goes on sale? I’ve got plenty of other games to play while I wait for that 33% discount, thank you very much.

But for Demon Souls, an incoming PS3 RPG, I’m making an exception. Watch this Gametrailers video to learn about its unique and interesting ‘passive multiplayer’ system. I want to be playing this one when everyone else is!

I’m going to embed it but you should probably click through to the HD version.

Motion Controller Wars

So now that all three of the major console makers have some kind of motion controller system, I figured I’d stick my oar in and give my thoughts on what each platform offers. Major caveat: I’m not at E3. I’m basing all the following on what I’ve read, and building on the hard work the professional gaming press is doing in LA.

Nintendo (Existing):
When the Nintendo Wii initially came out, it offered 2 weeks of great fun followed by a period of “This is it?” for a lot of early adopters. Playing Wii Sports was awesome, but once that was out of the way, a long procession of games with ‘forced waggle’ followed, and many gamers quickly tired of randomly shaking the controller in order to accomplish anything.

Eventually the waggle-wave cooled a bit, and games started coming out that used motion control where it fit in naturally (e.g. pointing, or a quick flip to reload a gun), and standard controls for the rest of the game. Suddenly the Wii was interesting again, and I actually grew fond of the nunchuk/remote combo for controlling games. Having the controller essentially broken into two halves made gaming very comfortable.

Nintendo (Wii Motion Plus):
Next week, the Wii Motion Plus comes out. This is supposed to add more precision and 1-to-1 correspondence between controller and on-screen presentation. This means we’ll have to get up off the couch again. When Tiger Woods 10 is played with the Wii Motion Plus, you’ll have to actually do a full swing of the virtual club, rather than a quick pendulum motion with the WiiMote. At least, that’s my understanding. Hopefully the Wii Motion Plus won’t set back the state of Wii games by very much.

At this point, the Wii is essentially the ‘base line’ of motion controllers. Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be leap-frogging Nintendo in the motion controller arena.

Microsoft and Project Natal:
Microsoft really wowed audiences with its controller-free motion control system. A sensor bar consisting of an IR camera, an RGB camera, and a microphone sits in front of (or on top of) the TV and reads the movements of players. The IR camera actually measures heat, and via heat, distance from the TV. The microphone is for voice commands.

Folks who’ve tried the system say it really works. The neatest demo I saw was a version of Burnout hacked so that the player steered just by holding his arms out as if they were on a steering wheel. When they turn the imaginary wheel, the car turns. Sliding their foot forward and back controlled acceleration. Very neat tech demo.

But I have some concerns. First of all, how well is this going to work when I’m wearing a checkered shirt and standing in front of a paisley-print couch? [Update: After pondering this for a while, it occurred to me that this might not be an issue, given the IR camera. It could use the heat of you body to tell the difference between you and the couch.] The demos were done in an empty room with white walls. Apparently the system can adjust for lighting differences, so they have that much licked.

Assuming the tech works, is this what we really want? If you have a choice of playing air guitar Rock Band, or fake-instrument Rock Band, which would be more fun? Props are important; they give play a visceral feel. I find it ironic that when the PS3 came out with a controller that lacked rumble, they were heavily criticized for losing that feedback. But now Microsoft has a system that by definition has no feedback at all, and everyone is going nuts for it. Nintendo’s Wii Remote has rumble and a microphone and these aspects really add to the immersion. When you wallop a tennis ball with the Wii Remote, you hear and feel the impact of the racket hitting the ball. You won’t get that kind of feedback with Natal, nor is it clear how you’d move around using Natal. How do you get your on-screen character to run, turn (without you turning so you can no longer see the screen) or fire a gun?

So I think Natal will spawn a new genre of games that take advantage of the hands-free control system. But where I think Natal will have the largest impact is with the overall UI of the Xbox. The idea of never having to search for the remote is very appealing. I wave my hand to browser through video or music selections, then I say “Play” to begin playback. Now *that* is both radical and useful, and I’d really love to see MS license Natal to other consumer electronics manufacturers.

And then there’s Milo. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in Milo. The demo was a heavily scripted event (Molyneux himself apparently admitted that) that made the demo seem more than it was. One of the most interesting aspect of Milo was the facial recognition. A person could stand in front of the Natal sensor and say his name, then when he returned, ‘Milo’ could identify who the person was. That’s pretty neat. The bit where the player splashed around in the water wasn’t anything new: the Sony Eyetoy has been able to do that for a while (granted the fidelity was better here). The conversation stuff was the most scripted…apparently Milo ‘understood’ just a few questions: this is understandable. If Milo worked as well as he *seemed* to work (without tricks) then he’d be about as smart as the voice actuated and controlled computer on Star Trek, and we just aren’t there yet.

But what was really, really cool about Milo was the head tracking. As you walked around the room, the view on-screen changed to reflect how you’d see the virtual world from that new location. This is really huge because it allows some very cool ‘virtual 3D’ effects; I can’t wait for MS to roll those out (see the video at the end of this post for an example of what I’m talking about).

So Milo was a really fun tech demo with some really cutting edge aspects, some rehashed stuff, and some smoke and mirrors. But the aspects that people seem so excited about (talking to Milo) isn’t what was really cool about the demo.

Sony’s Wand System:
Lastly we have Sony’s wand-based motion-control system. If you haven’t seen it, it consists of a pair of wands that include traditional controller buttons, and a light on the end of each wand. The Sony Eyetoy can track the lights with a high degree of fidelity. During the Project Natal demo, a player ‘painted’ by splashing buckets of paint on a wall. During the Sony demo, a player very legibly wrote his name on a virtual wall. That’s the difference in fidelity between the two systems.

In a lot of ways the Sony system seems like the Nintendo Wii Remote on steroids. A bunch of game applications immediately spring to mind. It has buttons so you can shoot a gun, and they could put an analog stick on it so you could move around a 3D space that way (a la the Nintendo nunchuk). The demo showed a very simple RTS game being played using the wands like a mouse. Let’s just pray that we don’t get a bunch of waggle games from Sony!

Really the three systems map well to now, soon, and future. Nintendo is the now solution. Depending on how much Wii Motion Plus adds, we’re all pretty familiar with what Nintendo can do. Sony offers the next step; an enhanced way of controlling your games that should be available and working well pretty soon (Spring 2010 they’re saying). And Project Natal represents the dreamy future. When Natal launches (my guess? sometime in 2011) it’s going to mean a rebirth of the Xbox 360 in much the same way that the NXE did. I don’t honestly see a lot of mainstream games supporting Natal, but I do see it refreshing the entire UI of the Xbox in remarkable ways, as well as adding a new genre: Natal Games.

Back to the head tracking issue. Here’s the video I mentioned. This fellow now works for Microsoft, but before he went to the big M he was hacking Wii Remotes:

*THIS* is the technology of Project Natal that I am most excited about!

UPDATE: GameSetWatch has a brief article up confirming that Johnny Lee is working on Natal.

UPDATE: Johnny Lee himself chimes in on his blog.

Sony gets in bed with its enemies

Here’s irony for you.

Shortly after the Sony PSP launched, industrious hackers started figuring out how to run homebrew apps on it. From then until now, Sony kept patching the firmware to lock out the homebrewers, and the hackers kept working around the patches. Sony’s message was clear, if ineffectual: thou shalt not homebrew.

Today, the Playstation Blog breathlessly announces that No Gravity: The Plague of Mind will be coming to the PSN tomorrow. In a very ernest attempt to part us from our dollars, the blog says, without a hint of hypocrisy, [No Gravity] hit the headlines for the first time in 2007 as a “homebrew” game for the PSP. It was acclaimed as a game that “puts tons of retail games to shame with its incredible polish.”

So apparently homebrew is evil and vile… unless suddenly Sony has a chance to make a buck off it.

Progress at last (Valkyria Chronicles)

I *finally* completed Chapter 7 of Valkyria Chronicles tonight. I think it took my 5 or 6 tries all together — with each attempt being separated from the last by a greater number of days (been over a week since my last attempt).

If your first instinct is to leave a comment saying “I beat that one first try, it was super easy.” please realize you will be moderated out of existence, you bastard!!! LOL

Seriously, my ‘research’ indicates this is one of the hardest missions in the game. And by “hard” I mean “You have to play it a bunch of times to see what the enemy is going to do so you can make sure your troops aren’t in harm’s way.” Felt like a big puzzle to me. Blech.


Pet PS3 Peeve

Dear Sony,

In general I really adore my PS3s (to the point I own two of them) but, please please PLEASE give us an option to turn off “preview” sound on the XMB.

Picture this scenario. The lady and I have dinner in front of the tv, and are watching Ghost Whisperer on DVD. A generally quiet show, not lots of explosions or screaming. We finish, turn off the PS3.

A few hours later, late enough at night that neighbors are sleeping, I turn on the TV, Receiver and PS3 on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Suddenly the walls are shaking with explosive sounds. I drop my glass and run back into the living room, where the PS3 is on, the XMB cursor sitting on the FEAR demo (thanks to Qore I already have it), and it is *blasting* out sound at an ear-splitting level.

I really, really hate that. I mean, I get that its cool that we can see and hear a preview window of the title selected, but please let us turn that off. Not everything enjoys an assault on the senses every time we turn our system on. The PS3, in our home at least, is much more than a game system: we watch DVD and Blu-Ray movies on it, watch Hulu via the built-in web broswer, and stream audio and video off the PCs in the office. It is very much a ‘media center’ for us, and me hitting the power button does not mean that I’m in the mood for EXTREME!!!!! violence.

And if Sony doesn’t give us that option, then publishers, please at least give some thought to what you’re blasting at us. The irony is that I turned the receiver way down to where the sound was reasonable, and started the demo…and had to turn the sound UP again. The ‘teaser’ was much louder than the actual game (and much louder than the DVD we’d been watching). And honestly, it made me think less (slightly) of the game…it was a bad first impression.

Thank you Sony, for your prompt attention to this matter!