Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Skyward Sword Impressions

You start with six hearts. What. The. Hell. I’m just kidding, I don’t actually care about that, it did catch me off guard, though.

I’m one temple in on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s a really great game so far, and I definitely look forward to completing it. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Legend of Zelda series, a fact which the game makes known within it. The motion controls are pretty great; choosing which way to swing my sword hasn’t been as tedious as I originally thought it was going to be. We’ll see if my opinion on that stays throughout the rest of the game.

New Systems
I’m finding myself really into the game's new questing system. Sidequests are more official now since villagers will have speech bubbles above their heads when they have something important to say to you. When you are asked to go on a sidequest, it is explicit and the you will have to select whether or not you want to take it.

The game also features an item upgrade system. There are various items that can be collected throughout the course of the game. So far I’ve found bugs and jewels of various sorts. They can be given to a particular NPC and he can use them to upgrade your items to have new powers. This varies from increasing the number of slots in your pellet pouch to making your slingshot fire a spray of pellets instead of a single pellet. Those are the ones that I’ve seen so far and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what other potential upgrades there are. These new features really give Skyward Sword some feeling of being a somewhat western-style RPG. This is an interesting decision that Nintendo has gone with the game and I approve of it wholeheartedly.

Also new to the game is a stamina gauge and, with it, running. No longer will intrepid adventurers feel that their fastest way to cross the land be by rolling everywhere. The stamina gauge is also used for climbing, carrying heavy objects, and particularly acrobatic sword maneuvers to allow them to be easily performed, but not spammable. If Link runs out of stamina, he fails at whatever the current action is and you have to wait while the stamina gauge recharges.

No Boats or Trains
A fairly prominent feature of the game is bird flying.  It’s a much smoother feeling transportation feature than Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass’s boat riding or Spirit Track’s train conducting. It features the three boosts mechanic that players will remember from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess’s horse riding. If you swing the remote up and down, your bird will flap its wings and ascend without losing speed, allowing you to dive and move quickly without sacrificing speed on the ascent. The problem with this is that the rhythm and strength of flap needed for the game to register the motion is very finicky. The flailing that I have to perform to get it to work often sends me wildly off course, rendering the whole point of the exercise moot.

I have never crossed a tightrope without Link tipping over and needing to climb back up on the rope. It took me forever to realize that to correct Link’s tilt you’re not supposed to tilt the remote, you’re supposed to point it in the opposite direction like a flashlight. Tilting the remote does nothing. Nintendo chose to eschew 4 years of Wii game design convention for some reason.

Speaking of eschewing game design conventions. When you’re playing a Zelda game, and there is a big eyeball on the wall, what you do you? You shoot it, right? The game gives you the slingshot not long before you go into the first dungeon. The first real puzzle of the dungeon has an eyeball on a wall above a door. However, when you pull out the slingshot, it shuts tight and is impervious to your pellets. Fi, the spirit of the sword or something and your Navi replacement for the game, notes that the eye follows the tip of your sword. I decided that I needed to make it dizzy. I swung my sword left and right and nothing happened. I swung my sword up and down and nothing happened. After trying to shoot the slingshot and get out my sword so maybe it’d open its eye in time to be hit I looked up the solution online. I was supposed to swing my sword in a circle to make it dizzy and open the door. So congratulations go to Nintendo for going against 20 years of Zelda game design tradition and making the first puzzle of the first dungeon an unintuitive use of motion controls.

Motion Minus
One of my biggest problems with playing the game doesn’t appear to be the games fault. It’s the Wii Motion Plus. While the technology is more sensitive that the standard Wii Remote controls, it seems to be prone to accumulating error. Over time its origin (how it’s oriented so that it thinks you’re pointing straight forward) seems to drift, making actions difficult to perform. In many cases you can press down on the D-Pad and it will recenter itself to its current orientation but there are times when you can’t do this and are forced to pause the game where you can recenter it. It can really break your immersion to have to do this, and it can really harm your gameplay if it happens at a critical moment. I’m just glad that since I bought the special edition at Wal-Mart’s Black Friday sale I didn’t have to pay extra for a Wii Motion Plus controller.

Right-Hand Bias
The games is only slight right-hand biased. I've had two issues with it so far: one is minor and the other is cosmetic. All weapon wielding enemies I've encountered hold it in their right hand. Since they hold the weapon mostly upright, this means that you cannot usually initiate your attack with a left-to-right swing, which is the most natural swing for a left-handed person. The game slightly favors right-handed people in this way. The other way that it favors right-handed people is that if you want to hold your sword in a cool way, such as pointed behind you, you can't do this and it will look really weird. Overall, I had worse fears and am not bothered by this.

I know that I complained quite a fair amount of the past 900 or so words, but I really do like the game. It’s still a very solid game and lives up to all my expectations about the quality of Zelda games. The graphics are, of course, not that great. The models all look very good, but the environments do leave quite a bit to be desired. As with Twilight Princess, the more stylized scenes do look absolutely gorgeous. If you like Zelda games, then I’ll bet that you’ll like this game. I love it so far.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Demos: Sonic 4 & Medieval Moves

Sonic 4 It's different, but good.

Ah, Sonic 4. The game fans wanted. A return to that core Genesis-era gameplay that entranced a generation. A return that fans didn’t get.

Sonic 4 isn't what players wanted. There were many complaints about Sonic’s style and the gameplay. One of the paramount complaints was that the game featured the homing attack that was introduced in the 3D Sonic the Hedgehog games.

When I first tried the demo for Sonic 4 so long ago, I didn’t like it either. It was weird to me. Things didn’t look or feel right. Now that I’ve played, and enjoyed, Sonic Generations, I decided to give this game another try. I believed that my positive experience with the ‘new Sonic’ gameplay in Sonic Generations might have given me a new, more positive outlook and experience with Sonic 4. It did.

Sonic 4 doesn't play like Sonic 1, 2 and 3 (or CD) and that’s okay. Not every game in a series has to be the same. If gameplay doesn’t evolve within an established series, people become bored with it. If you’re willing to cast off your retro-tinted glasses you can see that this game is actually good. The speed has been lowered a bit, to where you can reasonably see obstacles coming and the homing attack adds significantly to the game. The demo level provided me with a fun experience and I definitely plan on buying the full product.

One complaint that I always had about the classic, and one that is fixed in Sonic Generations, is that the game wants you to go as fast as possible. For Sonic, this is very fast. The problem is that you’re going so fast you can’t see the obstacles ahead of you with enough time to react. This leads to the classic problem of running headlong into spikes because the game hates you. In Sonic Generations, you’ll often find the camera is either forward facing, so you can see everything ahead of you, or it pulls out during those particularly speedy segments to give you more warning.

The classic Sonic games couldn’t do either of these things, due to the strength of the hardware. To pull the camera out would require storing more objects in memory and drawing more object. Old console games were designed in such a way that they couldn’t afford to do that. The camera needed to have a fixed number of objects on screen to manage memory efficiently. Sonic 4 doesn't do this either, but the speed has been somewhat lowered to account for it.

I like this game, and I definitely suggest other people try it out to. Just try and cast off whatever expectations you have for it and evaluate independently.

Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest Really solid motion control gameplay.

I went into this game not expecting much. I got a ton out of it, however.

Medieval Moves is a on-rails medieval combat game targeted toward a younger crowd. This is a game designed to be played solely with the Playstation Move. I believe there was an option to also use the Navigation Controller, but I didn’t use that configuration. I believe there is also an option to use two Move controllers: one as a sword and one as a shield.

The combat was very enjoyable. The character swings his sword in tune with your own movements, with very little lag. You can also shoot a bow, block with a shield, use a grappling hook, and throw shuriken. All of this is done only utilizing the Move button and the Trigger button, which are analogous to the Wii’s A and B buttons.

And you know what? It was really fun. Surprisingly fun, really. The actions that I was making really felt like I was acting as the character on the screen. Unlike Twilight Princess, where the use of any item was predicated by pressing a button, the use of your shield, bow, grappling hook, and shuriken is predicated by a particular movement. No item selection, just do the proper movement to use it. To shoot the bow, raise your arm over your shoulder as if you’re drawing an arrow from your quiver. To throw a shuriken, make a motion like you’re throwing a Frisbee. To use the grappling hook, lower the controller and bring it up, like you’re lifting a crossbow from your belt and raising it to fire.

Within the scope of the demo, the battles were all easy. There were times when certain enemies required the use of your shield, so block or deflect attacks so that the enemy’s weakness was exposed. I suspect the gameplay becomes more complicated as the game progresses, since the tutorial area requires you to attack specific body parts.

Someday, if I work through enough of the other games that I need to play, or write them off as not being worth my time, I may buy this game.  This was an excellent demo and I definitely recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Demos: Skydrift and Hamilton's Great Adventure

Skydrift Use the boost to chase!

What does one call a racing game that has weapons and power-ups, à la Mario Kart, but that only features airplanes? It can’t be a kart racer, the closest genre that I can relate it to. Kart flyer doesn’t make sense either. Arcade air-race? That seems closer. It's tough.

No matter. Skydrift is a racing game where you pilot a small WW2 era-esque aircraft and are assisted by power-ups which you fly through. The game also features a boost system which fills based upon the stunts that you perform, such as passing through narrow rock formations or flying close to the ground.

The power-ups are standard fare for this type of game. Guns, missiles, shields, repair, mines, and an EMP burst round out the arsenal available to players. Adding onto this is the fact that players can store two such items at a time, and if they collect a power-up they already have, the strength of it is increased. The storage/power-up system adds some nice touches to the item system.

The game feels very similar in execution to how Koei’s initial trailers for Fatal Inertia made me feel. Although this game isn’t nearly as fast as Fatal Inertia is, you do fly, which is more than Fatal Inertia can claim.

This was a very appealing demo, and I’d highly suggest you check it out if it seems like the sort of thing you'd be into.
Hamilton’s Great Adventure That's really just an opinion

I’m not sure what to label this game. I’m going to resort to the label of a puzzle game.  You play as the eponymous Hamilton and you adventure through a tiled puzzle area, navigating towards the goal. The key to navigating to that goal is figuring out the particular trick to the level, which makes it a puzzle game.

Hamilton is joined by a bird companion who has complete and unrestrained movement. The bird can collect certain tokens that are scattered around the map and flip switches that are out of Hamilton’s reach. The tokens can only be picked up by the bird.

The tokens don’t seem to play any role that I was able to discern in the short time that I spent with the demo. As best as I could tell, they only served as some way to boost your score or have a completion percentage to goad gullible players into playing the game more.

The seemingly useless tokens actually irritated me so much that I turned off the demo. Since the bird’s movement was unconstrained, nothing prevented it from starting each level by collecting every token available. I had mindless collecting in games. I got tired of it during the Nintendo 64 era and I don’t wish to return to it.

I didn’t play the demo fully, which is a terrible thing. If I’m so irked by the demo that I don’t want to finish it, there is no way in hell that I’m going to spend money on the game itself.  Maybe the bird gameplay fleshes out as the game develops, but I wasn’t motivated to stick around to see if it did. 

I should probably give it a second chance to see if it fleshes out, but I just can't get motivated to.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Platformers

More please!

I'm persnickety about platformers. It's hands-down my favorite genre of videogames. It's the one that I've grown up with and have stuck with a all of my life. This doesn't mean that I automatically love all platformers that come out, though.

I tend to be far more critical of platformers than other games. Highly regarded games like Rochard fall flat on me. There is a very particular reason for this. Many so-called platformers actually aren't good at the things that define platformers. Those things are timing and precision.

Many developers and gamers seem to think that being a platformer means having a jump button. A true platformer is one where the player is tasked with moving from one place to another with the primary difficulty coming from the precise timing and execution of their actions, mostly movement actions. There are many games out there that call themselves platformers, or some type of platformer hybrid, that really are not.
The puzzle-platformer is like a platformer, but with much more critical thinking involved. My most recent experience with this genre is when I played the demo for Rochard. Don't get me wrong, I do like puzzle-platformers, but not because they're platformers. In fact, I usually dislike the platforming, because it's often terrible.

Most puzzle-platformers spend far too much time developing the puzzles and no time developing the platforming. As a result, they'll often end up with a super floaty jump and nothing else. If there was a simple heuristic to measure how good the platforming in a game is, I'd have to go with the floatiness of the jump. The floatier the jump, the worse the platforming.
On the opposite end of the puzzle-platformer is the action-platformer. You can pretty much take everything from the previous section and replace 'puzzles' with 'killing things'.

There are two ends of this spectrum. At one end are your action games that have jump button. This would be like Devil May Cry. Yes, you jump. You're even sometimes asked to jump over or across things. However, jumping and movement are not your primary obstacle to progression.

On the other end, I'd place Mega Man or Ghosts n' Goblins. In these games, the enemies serve as timing/coordination challenges. While there are tons of enemies to kill, you also don't necessarily have to kill them. Uncharted 1 starts more towards the platformer side of the spectrum and becomes more of an action game as it goes on. This was one of my main complaints about the game.

I've found that a common way to measure where a game falls on this scale is how easy the enemies are to kill. If the enemies are easily killed, it falls more to the platformer side. If the enemies are harder to kill, it falls more to the action game side.

I love action-platformers, no matter where they fall on the spectrum. I'm playing Uncharted 3 right now and it's totally awesome. And really, when you get down to it, Uncharted 3 has action, platforming, puzzles, and a great story. It's the whole package.

The degree to which a game is a platformer comes from the timing and precision required for your movement actions. Enemies and puzzles can be added to the game to round out the gameplay, but can sometimes pull the focus away from the platforming. I'd really like it if more games were true platformers. I think many developers are afraid to do that, however, because of the obvious Mario comparison.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gaming Miscellany: Uncharted 3 and Sonic Generations

Uncharted 3 When his enemies see the half-tuck, they know to be afraid.

Another wonderful entry in the Uncharted series. I just finished chapter 10 (I think). I watched the opening scene for when they get to Syria. I'm also playing it on hard difficulty, because I just tend to play games on hard these days. There's a part of me that wants that challenge. I think it started with Devil May Cry 3. That reminds me, I need to buy Dark Souls.

Uncharted was a game that I had really high hopes for. It was a very good game, that's no doubt, but it wasn't as good as I would have liked. It, Mirror's Edge, and other games tend to fall into a similar patter. The pattern is that a new game promises interesting platforming, runs out of interesting platforming, and the game devolves into combat as the game progresses and loses its platforming.

I was Uncertain about Uncharted 2 because of my problems with the first one. However, the reviews and chatter started to roll in so I played it via Gamefly. It was a truly amazing game. The platforming didn't die out towards the end. The set pieces were beautiful. The story was amazing and the gameplay shined. I loved every minute of it.

Uncharted 3 isn't as many leaps and bounds better than Uncharted 2. I'm not even sure if it's better than Uncharted 2. So I'm not as impressed because my expectations were raised so high. That said, it's still an amazing game. The grenade throwback mechanic is really well done and adds some good depth to the gunplay.  The platforming is solid but has mostly been climbing so far. The climbing in Uncharted is so easy it almost may as well be automated.

I really look forward to beating this game.

Sonic Generations "Let's fly away together, Sonic." said Sonic. "I can't, Sonic. They don't have that mechanic in my levels." Sonic replied. -my personal fanfic collection

I wouldn't have bought this game if it weren't for the demo station set up at GameStop. The music for Green Hill Zone just captured me and wouldn't let me go. So, that was sneaky clever shit they pulled. Damn nostalgia. I'd played the demo previously and been unimpressed, but that changed when I got the full game. I don't really know why.

For the first three level, which pulled from Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3 for inspiration, I enjoyed the classic sonic versions. However, as the levels have progressed, I've been enjoying the new Sonic versions of the levels more and more, to where my enjoyment of new Sonic has overcome my enjoyment of the classic Sonic versions.

I'm six levels deep now, so we'll see how the rest of the game pans out. All things considered, this game has me reconsidering checking out Sonic 4 again. This game has probably been a great success for Sega and I think they deserve it.

I have about a billion other games that I have bought recently and need to play. Expect more in the future as I slowly make my way through playing all of them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Well, I Won't Be Working There Much Longer

Probably. Yesterday, I found out that my work had approved me to work full-time instead of as a contractor. Same pay, and I'll get benefits and time off. There's a problem though. Today at 3:00 we had a company-wide meeting. At the meeting we found out that we had lost the bid for the Medicare contracts we have. So by July at the earliest, we won't have that work any more. The process may be delayed a bit, but it will eventually happen.

I'm still going to be picked up for full-time. There was actually an ulterior motive to making me full-time. As a full-time employee I'll have first dibs on any jobs that show up at Blue Cross. Even still, the company isn't necessarily going away. They are, and have been, looking into new business that they can take on. So the company isn't dead, they may not need me in the future, but they aren't dead. Like I said before, I'll still be doing this particular job at least until July.

Aside from that, if I'm let go around then that opens up the possibility of moving somewhere and doing something else. I have experience under my belt now and could probably get a real job much easier now than it was for me before.

Overall, I'm not at all bummed about this. It's a weird thing to say, but I'm very fine with it. Medicare wasn't something that I wanted to spend my life doing. I see this as a way to transition to bigger and better things. Also, as compensation, we get to wear jeans for the rest of our time. Casual Friday is now everyday! YAY.

In a final bit of potpourri news, we got a rice cooker, and it's awesome.

I love me some rice.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Advocating the New Talent System: Necessary Conditions for its Success

At Blizzcon, Blizzard announced their changes to the new talent system and their hopes that it would be the end of cookie cutter specs. Smart people realized that this wouldn't be so, that as long as there were choices, people would sim/calculate out which choices would produce optimal DPS. Smarter people realized/made mention that this would just mean we'd have to come up with a cookie cutter spec for each fight. The particular article that I read was Mists of Pandaria: The Myth of the talent tree choice by my personal superhero Fox Van Allen (who has the best name ever).

Let me just say first that I agree with most of what he says in the article. I just don't necessarily agree with the doom-saying. I feel that there is more to be said on the topic. There is a theorem in mathematics that is relevant to this situation. It doesn't have a special name, but it goes like this:
Given any finite set of numbers, that set has a maximum value and attains that value.
In calculus this is true given any function and a closed set on which that function is continuous (or piecewise continuous), but that's not important. Here, a maximum value is one that is greater than or equal to each value in the set. In our case, these numbers are the DPS (or HPS, or relate to damage mitigated) produced on a particular fight by a particular set of talent choices. So on any fight, there will be some spec that is optimal. And since these talent choices are so different, it's unlikely that any two of them will be equal, except in rare cases, so there will almost always be a single optimal spec for any given fight.

Is this okay? Yes it is, under certain conditions. Blizzard has said that they want talent choices to be simpler, more understandable, and more meaningful. They've certainly achieved the meaningful aspect. The choices you make now are actually fairly significant from one another, but how can they make it simpler and more understandable?

I said that this system will be fine under certain conditions, what do I mean by that? What are those conditions? As I see it this system will be a success if
  1. It is clear when (for what bosses/situations) one talent choice is better than another. For example, Divine Star (priest tier 3) would be very good for a movement heavy fight with AOE damage and possibly adds.
  2. If there isn't an obviously superior talent for a particular fight, the talents should produce roughly equal results. The results should be equal enough that your familiarity with a play style should be more important than the simulated results.
  3. Talent choices should not have a significant effect on gearing. I should be able to change talents without feeling like I need to change my gear. I'm worried about enhancement shaman in their tier 4 talents in this regard.
  4. For DPS and tanks, the choices shouldn't change your rotation. You shouldn't have to relearn your class.
With this new system I want to be able to go into a heroic with whatever talent set I want to use and perform well. I shouldn't feel the need to change my spec from fight to fight unless I'm undergeared for the dungeon. During progression raiding, I fully expect for me and my fellow raiders to change their talent set from fight to fight. However, if we overgear the raid, I expect my talent choices to not matter nearly as much.

In the end, I'd argue that the cookie cutter spec IS gone. Cookie cutter, while it actually refers to the homogeneity between characters, seems to imply to me that the spec is optimal for every fight. We have now created a situation where the optimal spec changes from fight to fight. We've eliminated cookie cutter specs, just not optimal specs, and that's okay, because that's impossible.

Picky Math Word Nerd Side Note: These aren't talent trees anymore. They're talent sets. Truthfully, mathematically, they weren't technically trees before. The difference between the old system and the new system is that you have fewer choices, the choices aren't dependent upon one another (no talent requires another talent), they are more exclusive, and they are shared between specs. Diablo II's talent system was more tree-like, though it was really more like a forest (a collection of trees). Even then, it doesn't perfectly fit the description of a forest. I'd say it was more of a set of directed graphs.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fact: There are No Lesbians in WoW

He's hiding something, I know it!
A young orc comes home from a day of battle.

Father: Lok'tar! Son!

Son: Lok'tar father.

Father: What's wrong? Were you not able to crush the Alliance beneath your mighty blade?

Son: My blade and technique are fine, father; it is my heart.

Father: Your heart, does it ache? Are you ill? Did they strike at your breast? Do you need to see a shaman?

Son: I am not ill, father, yet my heart aches. I fear there is no balm to ease my pain. You see father, I need to tell you something.

Father: Spit it out, then. What is it?

Son: Father, I'm...Wait, what am I?

...and I don't think there are any homosexuals either. I attest, that title is a bit of a troll, but it raises an interesting point.What I mean when I say those things is that I don't think these words would make sense for a WoW character to use.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NatOctoBlogMo in Retrospect

This is one of my favorite videos ever.

Well, I did it. A full month with blog posts each day. I've actually been cranking out daily posts since September 21st and some days have had two posts. It's been a pretty wild ride, one that I took alone. But despite the fact that nobody joined me (sniff), I certainly enjoyed doing it myself, and that's what matters. What all did I talk about over this past month? What did I learn? Where will I be going from here (jump to the bottom for that)?