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Ben Hornsby

Ben Hornsby

Wednesday, 16 May 2012 17:56

Awesomenauts' is better than its name

I don't know what to tell you, but I only ever played as the little lizard guy. He's the ninja character. You can run around, drop a decoy of yourself as you turn invisible, and then try to get the jump on people with your double-damage reveal attack. It's pretty fun. I guess this game is probably a better multiplayer 'Castlevania' than that multiplayer 'Castlevania' game was. 

Not that it's anything like that, really. In fact it fits into an even more recognizable mold: The one that Team Fortress stuck into our lives. Or to be even more exact (and get even more 'Battlefield'-related hatemail): the one that 'Monday Night Combat' fits into.

You pick one of five (or seven?) characters and get dumped with your two teammates on either the blue side of the map or the red side. You have to tear through a series of turret-walls to get to the other team's core while they try to tear through yours. Only, hey, fist-pump: It's in 2D. Most of the twoish maps are sort of double-tiered; they look like 'Mario Bros.' arcade levels that have been stretched out on both sides. You know the ones, with the pipes in the corners and the POW block in the middle.

When I stare the universe in the eye, fighting games are probably the only competitive videogames worth playing. The fighting game takes the mechanics and ideas of all of competitive videogame design, and it winds them up so tightly that it becomes some kind of proto-genre. We can talk about 'Counter-Strike,' 'Mario Kart,' 'Madden,' 'Starcraft,' 'Gears of War,' or 'Call of Duty;' if any of these games are any good it's because they manage to feel exactly like 'Street Fighter II,' just for the split-seconds between feeling like everything else.

Obviously you have those exercises in point-missing, fighting games that get caught up in unlockable characters, arcane button combinations and licensing soups ('The Coca-Cola Problem;' we meet again!). But, hey, they're all missing the point, anyway. Never mind them! They're the bad ones.

'Skullgirls,' though, is pretty good. As usual I can't take the hundred hours it would take me to get really good at it, but at least this time I'd kind of like to. Those split-seconds between deciding whether to attack high, attack low, jump or grab are as juicy as ever, and 'Skullgirls' seems to hang right at some perfect degree of complexity; the characters all feel different, they all match up interestingly and for that matter there are only eight of them. Yes: Restricting your fighting game to eight characters is the respectable move today.

This is a true story from when I was a kid: After months of playing the game, my best friend's brother came to town and showed us how to get the Magic Flute in the first fortress in 'Super Mario Bros. 3.' Then he showed us how to get the P-Wing in 1-4, and then how to drop through the white blocks. That last one, in particular, clung like putty, adding to the surface area of my brain.

I was smart enough to know that 'Super Mario World's' ghost houses were designed by jerks pretty much from day one, but they still fascinated me - almost as much as those parts of the Star Road that I could see but couldn't reach. As a child-adult I can comprehend, mathematically, that 'Super Mario Bros. 3' is a better video game, and that its mystique lies in the opportunities for virtuosity in every one of its stages instead of in its 'secrets;' as an adult-child, though, I mostly preferred to try and jump up to the secret exit of Donut Plains 1 without hitting the Green Switch Palace first.

'Fez' is the videogame that the world's biggest 'Super Mario World' fan would make with two million dollars and three years. It's littered with weird little secrets, with opportunities to unlock new rooms by pressing the right buttons in the right order or to collect gold stars for looking underneath the right platforms from the right angles. Many of these secrets - like those Star Road levels - even seem to be hiding more enormous secrets behind them. 'Fez' even takes the next step once in awhile, hiding strange images in its soundtrack and hiding in-game items that the collective internet seems to be unable to uncover.

'Devil Survivor 2' is one of these grid-based RPGs. I think the most common touchstone here is 'Final Fantasy Tactics,' though there are dozens of other examples that lamer (cooler) people than me could list. Basically, you move your party of dudes around on a grid and fight enemies.

So there's this boss fight that pops up once you've dug a little way into the game. There's a street lined with ruined buildings - the game is set in a currently-apocalyptic Japan - with a big weird-looking monster thing at the bottom. That's the target; you need to use your four party members to kill it.

The boss sits on the bottom and your party enters near the top. It takes maybe four turns of simply walking straight down the street to reach the boss. At the very top of the map - just above your party - there are a handful of enemies. Included in their ranks is one of the obnoxious paralysis-inducing monsters that is only weak to fire; you're best off setting one of your dudes up specifically to deal with it.

'Xenoblade Chronicles' is the kind of thing that can make you wonder what the hell you're doing with your life. 'Am I really literally systematically checking fetch quests off of this list right now?' you might ask yourself. 'Xenoblade Chronicles,' played at a state of near-unemployment at age 24 with an electric bass guitar plugged into a switched-off amp in the corner of the room, is the kind of game that maybe gets you to realize that you don't have to do this anymore, which is about as much praise as I can give anything that doesn't taste like gourmet root beer.

Not being a jerk: Man, these skies really are blue. That's nice. And man, these characters really do sound crazy and British. That's alright, too! Entering one of these overworld areas is maybe an actual fantastic feeling. It's crazy how far you can see and how you can just walk through all of it. I don't want to just write the same sentence over and over, but, man, the scope of this game is really something.

Being a jerk: Unfortunately, there's this arrow, which literally grins straight at you through the screen, and literally drools, and literally yells at you through your Wii Remote to go kill three more goblins and get three more goblin hearts to get one more pair of shoes that increases your defense by one but lowers your speed by one so that you'll have a pair for every member of your party, and it literally gets bigger, pixel by pixel, if you stray from the path that whatever sidequest you select is leading you along, until eventually it gets big enough to cover up your avatar, and then big enough to fill up your whole screen, and then you have to turn your Wii off if you want to see around it. Luckily, once you reach this point, the whole thing might not even be a metaphor anymore, and you can play 'Dark Souls' instead.

Friday, 13 April 2012 13:50

'Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City'

'Operation Raccoon City' allows you to form squads from the main menu. This means you can pull all your friends together in a group before you start a game. It's pretty standard practice. Even if you don't play games like these, you only have to think about them for about four seconds before you come up with the idea yourself.

So, anecdote: My friend Jim and I squadded up to get some sweet sweet headshots (yeah bro) together, only to find that once Jim started up a game, I got kicked out because the game was already full. Despite that fact that Jim and I were clearly squadmates (the game's nomenclature), he was still put into a game that only had one open slot. We tried it again - I started the 'squad' this time - and it happened again; Jim was left alone, screaming for me to come back (he's a screamer).

That's fine. It's not like things like this don't get patched! I hear 'Mass Effect 3's' whole ending glitches out, or something; it's hard to be mad at a few matchmaking bugs in 'RE: ORC' when other 'gamers' like me have problems like that to deal with. Our third try - 'the charm' - got us in a game together, anyway.

Wednesday, 04 April 2012 15:51

Sine Mora: Latin for something

Sine Mora is Latin for... something! Something about furries and shmups, I bet. I'm just kidding: I'm pretty sure it has something to do with time, which ostensibly is at the core of the 'Sine Mora' experience. It's a fly-from-left-to-right 2D bullet-hell shooter, with the prerequisite floating gun upgrades and shield power-ups, but the mechanic hook is that in place of a health bar is a constantly-ticking timer. When it hits zero your ship explodes; if you get hit, you lose a couple seconds on the spot.

It sounds nice on paper, but when you're playing 'Sine Mora's' more challenging modes you simply can't get hit much, which would be just as true even without the fatal countdown. Time is also a major factor of the game's hilariously convoluted plot, which sees a group of rebels located throughout time fighting against... well, I don't know, to be honest. It's hard to follow, outside of a few hot little details: A father is trying to avenge his son's death while also going back in time to save his life; some kind of robot dude is being maybe-manipulated to go on a probably-suicide mission; some half-fox half-human rape victim is now being blackmailed into... uh, flying around and blowing up Megazords, I guess.

On the half-fox part: All the characters are half-animal, except maybe the robot guy. There's a handicapped buffalo guy, a lizard guy, a maybe-bear guy, and a couple kind of ambiguous fox-cat chicks. The game never specifically mentions the fact that the characters are all anthropomorphic, which is weird; it does specifically mention that one of them was raped, which is weird. I don't know. At least it doesn't dwell on it too long.

I can't imagine a legitimate use for 'Mario Party 9' other than as a tool to lure in unsuspecting children, and even in that case I'd probably just use candy, since candy isn't going to make a kid hate you. (I guess the idea is that, unlike candy, 'Mario Party 9' might eventually pay for itself.)

I can try to look at it as entertainment, but it's hard to believe that's what it was designed as. If you don't know what a Mario Party is (congratulations, I guess), then here you go: It's set up like a board game. Players roll dice and move spaces and if they land on certain spaces minigames start. They win coins or stars or whatever and then after so many turns somebody wins. Splash a little Walt-Nintendo-World fetishism on top of that and there you go.

Somewhere between 'Mario Party 3' and 'Mario Party 9' (I had better things to do, all right?), some boardroom somewhere reached the incredible conclusion that these games are way too complicated. So this time we have more boards for players to move around, except now the boards are straight lines, and all the players stay together on the same space. Up to four players take turns hitting a giant whirling die, making no decisions and watching the whole team lurch forward to various might-as-well-be-random events.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012 17:20

'Play Journey': Meet stranger: cry?'

'Journey' is easy to be a jerk about. It's practically got the word 'art' sticky-noted onto its forehead. Maybe it looks better then a painting, if you don't look at paintings. Like all 'art games,' it does not focus on either substantial game mechanics or on a story; it's about an aesthetic (like all 'art games,' a pretty somber one) and it's about getting the 'player' to 'feel' 'something.' You can tell the developers actually used those words in interviews. It's that kind of game.

I'm not going to be a jerk, though, because 'Journey' is worth talking about, mostly for its really fascinating co-op ideas. Maybe you could argue for some value in it as a simple aural and visual piece, if you're that kind of guy, but without this multiplayer I don't see what more you'd get from playing it on a PS3 than from watching somebody else play it on YouTube.

Your journey is spent wandering through a desert and a cave, headed for some snow-capped mountain in the distance. Each area is a gentle bubble, wide open and populated by a handful of simple, ambiguous objects. There are no 'puzzles' per se, just a couple of structures, ideas or characters floating around for you to play with until you see how to move on - how to continue the journey. A really wonderful Cracker Jack cluster of ideas appears near the end, attaining that mythic balance between aural, visual and mechanical feedback to hit what feel, maybe, like a couple pretty genuine emotional notes.

You can go ahead and think of 'SSX' as the new 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' if you're the kind of dude that really knows what was good about 'Sonic the Hedgehog' - which excludes everyone who currently works at Sega (ha!). It's not, really, about snowboarding; it's about flying at as ridiculous a speed as possible while trying to cling to some shred of stability. Each of the game's mountains even starts to take shape like a 'Sonic' level, filled with loopy, branching paths, some vague optimal route hiding underneath the knots.

Other major, less-expected inspirations come from, of all things, 'Demon's Souls' and Facebook. Eccentric multiplayer mechanics ditch simultaneous racing and opt instead to stick ghosts of every one of your runs into every one of your friends' games. This is definitely awesome, especially if you've got a couple real-life friends playing alongside you. A friend of mine just beat one of my times on an early track by 0.03 seconds, ('Just smoked your time, bro.' 'Does 0.03 seconds really count as a smoking?' 'YES.') and yeah, there's his ghost, following the same paths I took and just barely edging me out in the end.

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