Sunday, March 16, 2008

Four console games you might like...

I only play a handful of games a year, so I haven't written a game review since my post on Oblivion a year ago. But since then I've played a few unusually good games, including one awesome PS/3 title last weekend, so I figured it's time for another review.

First, here's my gamer profile, so you can decide now whether reading any further is worth your time. I'm a console guy. I don't play games on a PC because I want the whole big-screen, comfy-couch immersion experience. Some of my favorite games in the past include Final Fantasy X, the Zelda franchise, the Mario franchise, Morrowind and Oblivion, Fable, Doom and Doom II (but not Quake or Unreal), and Donkey Kong 64. So there ya go. That's the kind of game I like. Adventure and RPG games, mostly, and FPS types only if they have sufficient atmosphere.

Here's the memorable stuff I've played lately.

Portal

Everyone's been buzzing about this Xbox-360 game: they all say you've gotta play it, really cool gameplay, blah blah blah, and to be honest it sounded boring as hell. Plus it's only available through a 3-game title called The Orange Box, and the other games on it don't interest me.

A friend of mine finally bought me the game, came over, and sat there and glared at me until I played it. That's one way to do it!

Summary: it rocks. Great gameplay, new game dynamics, genuinely funny storyline, and an unexpectedly cool ending song that's easy to play, if you happen to be a guitarist.

I stayed up all night and finished the game in one sitting, so it's not very long at all. Only takes about 90 minutes the second time through, maybe. I recommend playing it through a second time with the developer commentary turned on, especially if you're a programmer or designer, since it was all really interesting stuff.

The plot summary is pretty simple. You have to take a series of increasingly complex tests using a "portal gun" that can shoot linked orange and blue portals onto horizontal surfaces. Jumping through either portal shoots you out the other one, maintaining your momentum, which makes for some really cool suicide-jump situations and a whole lot of different puzzle types. A female computer voice messes with you throughout the tests. At the end of the last test, things go south, and you have to escape into the guts of the test facility, crawling through ducts and messy industrial back-rooms, to find the computer and destroy it. It's really the second half of the game that's the fun part; you have to use everything you learned during the testing phase and solve some tricky puzzles while not getting shot, falling into toxic waste, or dying in any number of other exciting ways.

The game is more or less flawless in its execution: it was smooth, well-designed, bug-free, and it stayed interesting without ever getting frustrating. It was a little masterpiece. Can't wait for the sequel.

Mario Galaxy

I asked my friend Andrew Wilson if he has a Wii yet, and he retorted: "NO, because I'm a grown-up!" Funny stuff. I'm assuming his wife won't let him buy one.

If you don't have a Wii, well, you're missing out. It's far from perfect – in fact the device itself is pretty weak, and is missing HD output, bluetooth and a number of other pretty important things. But its controllers really blow conventional controllers away. I've played one FPS on the Wii (Metroid Prime 3), and although the game itself was IMO a bit borderline, the controls were amazing. Going back to the XBox 360 or Playstation controllers feels totally rinky-dink, like I've traveled back to the 1980s and I'm using an Atari Joystick.

Plus it's actually true that non-gamers like the Wii, and the multiplayer party games wind up being a lot more fun than they are on other consoles. You can work up quite a sweat trying to beat the crap out of people in boxing matches or outrun them in olympic games. Fun stuff.

Anyway, I'd been kind of reluctant to play Super Mario Galaxy. Every time I saw someone playing it in a game store, they'd be running around teeny tiny planets like the ones in that book The Little Prince, and it looked like it was going to be absolutely nauseating. And I mean literally nauseating, in the motion-sickness sense. It just didn't look anywhere near as fun as previous classic Mario titles (Mario 64 comes to mind – I just replayed that on my Nintendo DS and loved it just as much as ten years ago.)

But I figured I'd give it a try, and boy, was I wrong about it. Mario Galaxy is arguably the best Mario title since the original Super Mario Bros. arcade game. Nintendo just nailed it, across the board: well-balanced gameplay with lots of variety, superb level design, gorgeous sets, and probably the best music ever from a Mario franchise game – check out this orchestra recording the Gusty Garden Galaxy Theme, for instance. It's just one of several equally awesome pieces written for the game. (I also particularly liked the Good Egg Galaxy theme, the "Teresa Waltz" in the Ghostly Galaxy, the Bowser Battle music, the Buoy Base theme, and the Disney-esque Observatory waltz. But almost all the music was worth listening to, and I can't wait until the soundtrack is available.)

The game has oodles of atmosphere. You can practically feel the wind in the Gusty Garden Galaxy. You can almost smell the honey in the Honeyhive Galaxy. In the Beach Bowl you feel the sun on your back and smell the surf. It's really weird, actually – I've never played a game before that made it feel like all five senses were in play the way this game does.

I experienced none of the motion-sickness or discomfort I had been dreading. You get used to the gravity surprisingly fast, and before long it doesn't matter what combination of camera angle and orientation you happen to have active – you just keep on running, jumping, and smashing things, upside-down and backwards. It's the most truly three-dimensional game environment I've ever played.

My favorite part of the game, which I played over and over just for the effect, was probably the first Battlerock level. The music is reminiscent of Mars from Holst's The Planets, and builds up steadily while you make your way towards this huge rock in the distance. As you get closer you realize it's sort of like the Death Star, and it's shooting at you like mad as the music builds to a climax. Great level!

One of the big turn-offs for me in the Mario and Zelda franchises has been overly-tough boss battles. I think Twilight Princess and Mario Galaxy have both finally dialed it right: the boss fights can be challenging but are achievable without having to take a two-hour time-out from the plotline just to practice some crazy move, as has been the case in so many past titles.

Anyway, the game made a fanboy out of me, so, you know, take all this with a grain of salt. You might like it, you might not. I thought it was great.

Zelda Twilight Princess

I played Twilight Princess last year – I can't remember exactly when, but it feels like a long time ago. Great game, though; if you haven't played it and you like the genre, you need to get your hands on a GameCube or a Wii. I played TP on my old GameCube, since it was before I owned a Wii, and I was highly skeptical of the Wii controls for that kind of game, at the time. I couldn't imagine holding my arm out for ten minutes trying to keep my bow steady. (This was long before I learned that the Wii controls often work best when your wrists and elbows are on the couch and you're just flicking the Wiimotes around like laser pointers.)

I originally wasn't going to write a long review of this game, since it's not exactly making news headlines anymore. I did think it was just as good as Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, but not any better. In fact, I think I might have enjoyed Wind Waker a little more than Twilight Princess. That said, TP was one of the best games of the past ten years, and had some truly groundbreaking gameplay and atmospheric elements.

The more I think about it, the more I'm remembering how much fun I had with it. So it gets a spot in my most-recommended list for the past year.

A few scenes still stand out after nearly a year. Flying the big Nazgul-mount-ish monster upriver while getting shot at from the banks played like a scene out of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. The minigame in the canoe coming back downriver was loads of fun. The burning bridge and fall into Lake Hylia were really cool. Searching for bugs for that wacked-out little girl was... weird, but fun. The horseback riding and combat were both completely new and exciting. And I just about died laughing when I wrecked my first wild boar.

The game has an eerie and heartrending central climax, "Midna's Desperate Hour." You're stuck in wolf form, carrying your dying friend Midna to the castle to try to save her while some really sad music plays, and it just goes from bad to worse. You start off having to run through town in broad daylight as a wolf for the first time, and the townspeople are all running from you screaming in horror, which doesn't make you feel any better about the situation. Then you have to make your way across the most bleak, windswept rooftops imaginable, buffeted by this sort of ash-storm, and then, well, let's just say they're setting you up to stab your heart out when you get to the castle. It's pretty agonizing. The mood does eventually pick up, though, and eventually you do beat the bad guy and save the day.

If you haven't played it, you should give it a try. In some sense it's just another Zelda game with all the expected elements, including lonely temples filled with puzzles, little towns filled with bizarre characters, the usual power-ups and mini-games, and the classic heart-container scheme. But it gets major points for having a dramatic sweep and story-arc not really present in previous Zelda titles. It's also got much more achievable boss battles, so you can finish the game without ever getting insanely frustrated.

Now I'm making myself want to go back and play it again, so I'll shut up about it.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

I just played Drake's Fortune last weekend. It's the reason I wrote this blog entry, actually. In my humble and totally biased fanboy opinion, you should run out and buy it right now, along with a PS/3 and a bigger TV.

I saw a commercial for the game last year and thought: "Hey, that almost looks like a game that could induce me to buy a Playstation 3. Almost." But I was worried about the whole Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD thing, and PS/3s used to be kind of steep (they were, what, like six hundred bucks initially?), and I just kinda dragged my feet on the whole issue forever, as I suspect most of you have been doing.

Then Blu-Ray won the war a couple weeks ago, all rather suddenly and unexpectedly, and I thought, hey, this might be a good time to replace my ancient TV and get myself a PS/3, so I can finally drag myself out of the non-HD dark ages. So I went big-screen shopping, and unlike for every other TV I've bought in the past, I decided not to cheap out this time. I wound up buying a Panasonic 58" 1080p plasma HDTV, which after lots of research and staring at screens in stores, narrowly beat out the Sony Bravia XBR4 52" 1080p LCD HDTV. They're both great products, but the plasma still beats the LCD for gaming.

The 58-inch plasma is jaw-droppingly awesome. I replaced my Comcast box with one of their HD-DVRs, and it works great but has almost no space for recording shows, so at some point I'll probably have to pick up an HD Tivo. It's too bad, really, since I have the lifetime-membership Tivo, and I'll almost certainly have to switch to paying a monthly fee if I upgrade to the HD version, since I missed the promotion window when they came out. But you really do need the extra space, so the Comcast one is going to have to go. In the meantime, the HD channels look great, and they only cost me about ten bucks more than the package I already had, so it was well worth it.

Let me tell you: nothing, nothing I've seen so far on my new screen, not Blu-Ray discs, not HD channels, not Oblivion on the XBox 360, nothing can compare to the visual feast provided by Drake's Fortune. It's reportedly only 720p, but it looks like it's 1080p and then some. I took a bunch of pictures of it while I was playing, cheesy ones on my iphone that I'm embarrassed to upload, but it had so many stop-and-stare areas that I just kept taking pics.

Anyway, visuals aside, the game itself is sort of a cross between Tomb Raider (the original, which was pretty fun) and Gears of War, which I've never played, but people say Drake's Fortune has similar combat mechanics. And it's a bit like the recent horror movie The Descent towards the end. Yeah. I didn't see that element coming, but it was pretty darn cool. And scary.

The game is short and linear: an interactive movie, essentially. I took my time with it and still finished in about 13 hours. There are some puzzles, but not too many, and none of them are even remotely difficult to figure out. Which is good, I suppose; in my old age I don't like to spend too long on any one puzzle, so I'm pretty quick to go look online for hints if I get stuck. Didn't have to do that for this game, which helped increase the immersiveness.

The game starts off a little slow, to be honest, and after the first hour I was starting to worry that it would suck. You have to stick it out until you parachute onto the second island, after which it gradually picks up the pace until it feels like it's a flat-out race to the finish.

Most of the game, especially the latter half, revolves around the combat, nearly all of which is against modern-day pirates. You have to get good at ducking behind walls and fast aiming to have a hope of surviving (although trust me on this one, if a non-FPS gamer like me can master it in a few hours, you can too). I found the combat to be loads of fun, and I'm getting ready to play the game through again just for that. You run across a good selection of weapons, including a nifty Dragon Sniper rifle, and you have to make tough decisions about what to carry with you since you've got limited inventory space: one handgun and one rifle or shotgun, basically, plus a little ammo.

The voice acting is really good, much better than it was in Oblivion, although I'm sure it was easier since the game is shorter and there are fewer characters. The lines are a little cheesy at first, but either the writing got better as the game progressed, or I just got used to it. Either way, by mid-game it felt pretty believable. In fact I laughed a lot at the characters' reactions. The main character, uh, mumble Drake, I forget his first name, says exactly what I would have said, the first time a grenade lands next to him. It's not repeatable here. The swearing/profanity in the game isn't over-the-top, but they use it effectively now and then for humor value.

The AIs are great, and for a lot of the game you've got at least one friend following you around and helping you fight stuff or solve puzzles. They almost feel like real people, and they're nowhere near the nuisances NPC helpers have been in hundreds of games in the past.

The generator-room sequence is just plain scary. I've played scarier games, sure – Fatal Frame comes to mind – but this one really had my pulse going towards the end of the game. For an hour, at least, until I finally made it out of there. I'm lucky I didn't keel over.

There are a few fast-paced movie-like combat sequences thrown in. There's one especially memorable scene where you're riding shotgun in a Jeep, and you have to shoot at bad guys coming after you while you're racing through the jungle. Cool stuff. The whole feel of the game is very Indiana Jones, actually. Naughty Dog did a great job with it across the board.

And the visuals – well, they simply defy any possibility of describing them here. Steaming tropical jungles, crumbling Spanish fortresses, foamy waves crashing against the rocks a hundred feet below you, realistic character motion and rendering – the game is sumptuous, no better word for it.

You really have to play this game. You only need to set aside one day for it, so you might as well check it out!

Some final thoughts

I pretty much bought my XBox 360 for Oblivion, although it wound up being my DVD player for a couple years after my Sony player died. It didn't matter, though, since Oblivion was good enough to warrant the purchase of an XBox 360. And I did find one or two other 360 titles that were fun (e.g. Kameo: Elements of Power, a fun but short romp from ex-Rareware, my ex-favorite game studio.) I'm hanging on to my 360 specifically so I can play Fable 2 this holiday season. The original Fable was lots of fun, and had a cool werewolf scene I'll remember to my dying day. I hope the sequel is every bit as good.

But I'm clearly someone who doesn't need much incentive to buy a game console.

I pretty much bought my PS/3 for Drake's Fortune, hoping it would be worth it, although it's also nice to have a Blu-Ray player. I'd have to say Drake's Fortune doesn't singlehandedly justify the purchase of a PS/3 for gaming purposes, but it does illustrate the potential of the platform, and I think there are tons of great titles to come. For a while most of the good games are likely to be ports that are also available on the 360, but they say the PS/3 has a lot more parallel-processing power, so as game developers learn to take advantage of it I'm guessing the PS/3 eventually gets the edge.

It's still early-adopter material, though, so if you already own a Blu-Ray player, a PS/3 may not be worth it this year. Drake's Fortune will still be a fun game next year, and will be a lot cheaper than its current $60 price tag.

And with that, it's a wrap! Looking forward to seeing your game suggestions in the comments.

27 Comments:

Blogger Ilyak said...

Unfortunately, I always liked strategy games, and consoles generally lack them, I believe.
PCs too, for now. That's why I play crawl and oldies mostly.

9:59 PM, March 16, 2008  
Blogger Parveen said...

If you like Portal, let me advocate some indy games.

Everyday Shooter was game of the year for me.
http://www.everydayshooter.com/

PixelJunk Racers and PixelJunk Monsters is good too.

On XBox Live Arcade, both Eets: Chowdown and N+ are fantastic.

For PC, try anything by Jason Rohrer. Cultivation, Passage, Gravitation, Perfectionism.

10:09 PM, March 16, 2008  
Blogger Phil Harnish said...

The PS3 can run Linux out of the box as well. With a bit of work you can get NES and SNES up and running. I also look forward to the chance to program some crazy parallel matrix multiplier ...or something. If you have HD I would say the price is definitely worth it as a DIY media center.

10:21 PM, March 16, 2008  
Blogger untz said...

I just skimmed through you post (so I may be wrong with what I read)...

I always heard that HD LCDs are the way to go to play video games?! I heard that plasma's aren't good (for gaming) and that the video games eventually burn into the screen or cause it to flicker?

Yeah, I am with you, in the sense, that console games are the way go! The only no game that I still would play is Diablo II.

You should check War Hawk (see: http://warhawk.com/) - a development manager played it for me on a dev box (instead of the PS 3) when I interviewed at Sony.

I also like the Grand Theft Auto Series and Halo. The only systems I have are the X-Box and XBox 360, but all the hard core programmers who I worked with really prefer the Nintendo Wii.

Yeah, Oblivion rocks, I quit playing it before I could beat it because I was playing it for 15 hours straight at a time! :)

Also, try Call of Duty 4 and Star Wars: Battlefront.

I have a Sony PSP but haven't really played it much. A lot of people like the Nintendo DS though.

If you do get a Nintendo DS, try The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (I heard it rocks).

See:

http://www.zelda.com/phantomhourglass/

Still can't believe you play everything on a plasma though (maybe I should re-read your post).

Happy gaming!

11:04 PM, March 16, 2008  
Blogger Tom W.M. said...

> "If you don't have a Wii, well, you're missing out. It's far from perfect – in fact the device itself is pretty weak, and is missing HD output, bluetooth and a number of other pretty important things."

Um, what? The Wii has Bluetooth -- in fact, I have a Wiimote that I intend to use with my media center PC instead of infrared.

11:29 PM, March 16, 2008  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Huh. Any tips on how to connect my Bluetooth Apple wireless keyboard to it? Works with the PS/3...

12:48 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Java said...

Hay Steve,
you mentioned you liked Final Fantasy X. You might enjoy Lost Odyssey then, an RPG by mistwalker that came out in february. It's made by the guys that made Final Fantasy what it was: Hironobu Sakaguchi (Director), Nobua Uemantsu (Music) and I believe some of their fellows which all left Square Soft during the last few years. Lost Odyssey pretty much nails the FF formula to perfection. The battles are challenging but not too difficult, the graphics are gorgeous (Unreal Engine), the music is among the best Uematsu ever produced and the story is amazingly well written. Mistwalker aparently hired some really really famous and talented writer (Kiyoshi Shigematsu) and a great character designer (Takehiko Inoue) to give live to the events and people in the game and it really works. Although a japanese production, all voices were written and recorded in english from the beginning and it really shows. It's rare to see voice acting in games that's as good as this.

You play as a 1000 year old mercenary with no memories, trying to prevent a big political plot. As you go, you're remembering more and more about your past, presented in the form of short stories to be read from screen, accompanied only by some pictures and music. This might sound bland but these dreams really carry the majority of the games sad atmosphere and are reported to bring grown men to tears.

Well yeah, check it out, it's great:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=D4kCClro-SA

1:29 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I second the suggestion for the Live Arcade title N+ on the 360; you've got to try its cooperative mode. It's just too much fun cooperating with random online people in a platforming puzzle game.

Lots of fun, especially if you like to watch people think. (A couple of the competitive levels get into some interesting tradeoffs and headgames.)

1:46 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

I bought the orange box on PC for portal, but after I got 80% through it I got bored.

Then I started playing team fortress 2, and have barely stopped (except for work, the kids, etc.)

Nothing beats playing against a bunch of other people for a challenge.

4:07 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Redline6561 said...

Steve,

I suspect you might really like a PS3\PSP game coming out this year called echochrome. There's a demo currently up on the Japanese Playstation Network that you can download. The game is predicated on helping a mannequin traverse an impossible object.

-Brit

5:18 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Jeremy said...

@ilyak:
If you like the roguelikes, check out TOME http://t-o-m-e.net It is a descendant of the old Moria game, and has kept me occupied for the past 8 years or so...

6:06 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger SomeJerk said...

I truly enjoyed Super Paper Mario for the Wii. It's not the best Wii game in terms of really utilizing the controller, but it has a lot of fun side quests, excellent characters (both allies and enemies), and wonderful writing. They do a great job of poking fun at the series and aren't afraid to break the fourth wall.

There is also one level that's a pixel world featuring a nerd iguana that I wanted to replay immediately, I had so much fun with it.

6:38 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Dave Mackie said...

If you have a DS (and it sounds like you do), you should check out "Professor Layton and the Curious Village". It's pretty much a boatload (~130) of brainteasers dressed up in a minimal adventure game plot, and it's pretty fun and addictive.
I find that I use my DS a lot when waiting for the kids at activities (gymnastics, ballet, etc), and "Professor Layton..." is a perfect game for times like that.

7:57 AM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger Elliot said...

Regarding boss difficulty (and difficulty in general) it's really hard for them to make a one-size-fits-all version. I personally found the recent zelda and mario games were too easy, especially zelda bosses.

2:54 PM, March 17, 2008  
Blogger LeMadChef said...

You're probably going to hear this a lot, but you should at least give Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (longest. game. name. ever.) a rent. I simply loved the first 4 for the PS2 (couldn't get into the PSP game) and the PS3 version is probably the 2nd best of the series. I would call it a "great 3D Megaman" in the same sense that Mario 64 was a "great 3D Mario" (disclaimer - I really enjoyed Megaman). The platforming action is spot-on and there is a lot of little humorous elements in the game. Plus you get to blow stuff up which is always fun.

9:12 AM, March 19, 2008  
Blogger Redline6561 said...

I second the Ratchet and Clank series (mentioned by lemadchef). It is completely spectacular. Still, you should really check out echochrome. I mean an Escher puzzle game? Come on!

9:16 AM, March 19, 2008  
Blogger druid said...

Buying a big TV doesn't make you a grownup, Steve :)

I'll be interested to hear how that plasma works for you - the plasma in the break room in Fremont has burn-in from too much Guitar Hero, which surprised me as I'd heard plasmas no longer had that problem.

Anyhow, I can't wait to check it out, the next time you invite us over (hint hint)...

9:32 PM, March 19, 2008  
Blogger figwax said...

Is it possible to upgrade your comcast box?

https://www.weaknees.com/

11:19 PM, March 19, 2008  
Blogger Anthony DiSanti said...

Wow, I appreciate the recommendations Stevey, but can we get a spoiler alert on that Zelda rundown. I know you hid the end of the sequence from us, but I think you may have tip-toed over the line there...

No seriously, go back and add a spoiler alert.

8:49 PM, March 21, 2008  
Blogger MathiasTCK said...

Get Smash Bros brawl. It's single player play includes some of the best mario style side scrolling. It's 4 player FFA is still the best in the business. Brawl on the Wii features online play.

Warning! Smash Bros Brawl virtually doesn't use the motion detection or pointer of the wand, even in menus.

4:36 PM, March 26, 2008  
Blogger Ron said...

Hey, you finally bought a bigger than me :)

Can I borrow your game for my ps/3?

How could you not _mention_ wyvern in games you liked to play.

--caius

3:59 PM, March 29, 2008  
Blogger Shane said...

Ya if you liked FF X I think Lost Odyssey is a little better. I recently bought a PSP just to play RPG's since there are not enough out on 360 or PS3 yet.

Playing Wild Arms XF atm and it's pretty good and long for a mobile game.

10:15 AM, April 04, 2008  
Blogger Rob Allen said...

Grab a copy of Mass Effect, I personally hate RPG's but found this might be the game to change my opinion.

4:06 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Bloggergamer said...

Hey man I love Super mario galaxy too. Its actually my favorite game on the blog I just created. I was hoping that maybe if i sited a link to your blog on my blog, Gamer Central, could you put a link to mine on yours. That might help me get more viewers, haha! :>

5:13 PM, June 10, 2008  
Blogger Andy said...

Regarding five essential things to ask on phone screen.
coding reverse a string
suggestion that is i think easier.
String rev = "";
char[] chars = s.toCharArray();
for(int i = 0; i < s.length(); i++)
{
rev = chars[i] + rev;
}
return rev;

3:29 PM, August 11, 2008  
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