Bayonetta

One thing I forgot to mention in my general roundup was my experience with the game Bayonetta.

PAX had this very nice room where one could wander in and check out a game and play it for 45 minutes – hour. The library was large and it spanned multiple different game systems. Want to try out a PS3? Sure. Want to check out this weird game you heard about? Go ahead!

I was alone, and I wanted to play something where I would have no emotional investment. So I checked out Bayonetta. The guys working the room asked me three times if I really wanted to play this game and I said yeah, of course I did.

This game is, to put it simply, horrifically, awfully awesome. It is so awful it actually makes that loop to becoming good again. In essence: you are a DEMON NUN WITH GUNS AND KUNG-FU. You are beating up the ANGELS OF HEAVEN. God has it in for you, personally. And you, like, kung-fu on a bunch of angels and you head down to purgatory and hang out and you get magic witchy hair powers that let you walk on water and dodge lightning and then you go hang out in a bar in hell to buy your powerups. Blah blah blah plot and cut scenes — I kept hitting “skip cutscenes” so who knows what the plot is about.

Really, SEGA, you had me at DEMON NUN. The guns and kung-fu are just added bonuses.

People wandering the room had to stop and stare at what I was playing. By time I got kicked off, I had a small audience who partook of my terrible run-through of the game. There was a small “aw” when I turned it off.

Dude, I totally don’t know if I could recommend this game or not. I just know, like, DEMON NUN.

PAX East 2010 Roundup

Short form: We had a fucking fantastic time.

Long form: I am not a big fan of cons and I don’t attend gaming cons. I have never been a big enough tabletop gamer to want to dedicate my entire weekend, plus a drive, plus hotel, plus food, to tabletop gaming. But since I was about ten, I have wanted to go to a video game con — any video game con, anywhere. For years I devoured the coverage of E3 until it became so tepidly lame that it finally died. I would have gone out to Seattle to PAX if I could have swung it and the moment I heard there was a PAX East, we had tickets. I bought tickets three hours after they were announced and sat on them since September.

Video games are my primary nerd-dom, followed by (indie) comics, then indie music. PAX is awesome. Main passion is video games? PAX. Like comics? PAX. Into card and board games? PAX. Want to spend your entire weekend playing D&D 4th Ed? PAX. It is a pinnacle of nerd fury.

We drove up to Boston and stayed in the Sheraton Boston attached to the Prudential Center which also housed the convention center so we never went outside. I wasn’t a big fan of the hotel — the room was tiny, the bar sucked, everything was overpriced, and they tried to buy me out of my room the moment I arrived. (Um, no? How does NO grab you.) But we spent very little time in the hotel.

PAX East 2010 had a problem with underestimating the amount of space needed for all the panels and activities/people, so everyone got real friendly and there were problems with space and seating. Without dedication to the entire convention, it was very difficult to get into many of the main events. We already know that next year it is moving to bigger facilities for demand but once we figured out that getting into major events meant waiting in lines, we dedicated ourselves to waiting in lines.

Some of our high notes:

Wil Wheaton’s Keynote: It’s online (search YouTube for ‘wil wheaton pax east.’) It was a pitch-perfect speech that addressed getting Old and still being a Geek.

Saturday Night Concert: If we were going to do anything while we were in Boston it was see Internet Troubadour Jonathan Coulton perform live. We nearly killed ourselves getting guaranteed seating. We stood in the pre-line for the line to get the wristbands so we could get in the line. We were not disappointed.* The highest point was the performance of Mr. Fancy Pants on a Zen Drum hooked to Logic Pro. Seriously. Make with the clicky.

Also, if for some reason you don’t know or listen to Mr. Jonathan Coulton and you claim to know me, click the above and exchange money for music. Or go to the old Thing a Week and listen to some of the tracks and then buy CDs.

Eric met MC Frontalot: What else do I have to say? Eric had the MC Frontalot demos off the website and wanted to exchange money for CDs. And completely unbidden, every CD cover got signed and Eric got a signed poster. It was awesome. You should totally buy a copy of the new LP, Zero Day. It has Jhonen Vasquez cover art! A bonus XKCD comic just for MC Frontalot! A song about Kingdom of Loathing! I don’t like hip hop but even I like the CD.

Steel Battalion: I would have nothing to do with this incredibly wrong game but we had to watch a match. We had to. Steel Battalion is a game for the old XBOX that required this enormous 40 button controller and was a “complete power suit simulation.” They had 10 machines all lashed together on a LAN to play tower defense games. It was insane.

Apples to Apples: We couldn’t get into the MC Frontalot concert on Friday night, so instead we discovered we could actually check out board games and card games. We met another totally random group of guys and played three hilarious rounds of Apples to Apples for an hour and a half. It summed up the entire con for us: people were on the whole awesome, people were looking for other people to play with, and you could hook up with total strangers to play games. (I also bought a Fluxx deck finally.)

The Rock Band Lounge and the Handheld Lounges: The Rock Band Network took over a room and turned it into a faux-bar with beanbags and chairs and had people get up on stage and make total jerks of themselves playing Rock Band. If you didn’t play on Expert you were booed! Best run of the con were the guys who played Iron Maiden — total props to you guys. You know who you are.

The best part were the long hallways covered in beanbags. Anyone could just go collapse with a handheld or a laptop on a beanbag for a while. Two huge hallways had beanbags on two floors so there was always a beanbag free. This was just brilliant — if you collapsed from just tiredness you always had a place to go.

The EXPO Center: I thought the Expo was too small — and we already know it will be bigger next year — but most of the booths had playable demos. I saw Puzzle Quest 2 with the big upgraded interface, so once that comes out nice knowing you guys. I saw tons of really compelling tech from the huge upgraded video cards to the tiny portable gaming rigs with 12 hours of life to the full six-string guitar controller/trainer for the XBox 360. (They gave me a free t-shirt — there were free t-shirts everywhere.) The new Rockstar game looks fantastic. Big downer though: I couldn’t get into the Civ5 demo.

I still seriously want that gaming table/dining room table.

Awesome people: From the guys who played Apples to Apples with us to the guy who told me the horrors of trying to win a Mario Cart DS tournament (avoid the blue bombs!!!) to the guys who let me watch their Mafia card game to the guys who demo’d their insane D&D4th edition flat-screen table with minis, everyone was just awesome.

Friends! We saw Chris and Jen, and I had lunch with Mark, and then we had a great meal with Mark and Eleanor. We will see you guys at the end of May!

Despite scheduling issues and having real difficulties getting into panels and that we are so sore, I am intending to buy our PAX East 2011 tickets the moment they go on sale in September. For the first year, it was great, and it will be guaranteed to be better next year.

I do have a photo archive up. They’re not the best pictures but they’re something.

* We had a backup plan if we couldn’t get into the concert. Freezepop was playing at the Harmonix Showcase just outside the convention center.

Dragon Age: Origins

Warning: Contains mild spoilers!

In the end, he was the King of Ferelden and I was a city elf from the Denerim slums and it couldn’t work out. Wynne spent half the war yelling at the two of us that it could never work, and even pulled me aside at one point to spell this out in painful detail. It was the great Romance of the War and it died when he became King.

I have played nearly every major console or computer RPG since Bard’s Tale so I feel like a bit of an authority on these sort of things. Dragon Age: Origins reminds me strongly of, strangely enough, Ultima VII: the Black Gate. It was the not the first game with strong moral ambiguity — that crown goes to Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. It was a game more about the strong characters and a decentralized plot than a linear plotline and pretty scenes. U7 was about murder and the evil in the people you thought good and choices and fewer rails. Other games have tried to emulate the style; DA:O nailed it.

I have to admit: I loved DA:O and not because it had a special storyline. It had wonderful worldbuiding but blah blah, giant evil, blah blah, must save the world, blah blah, a bunch of quests. Seen it, done it, it took two tries to kill the Foozle in the end. The strength and brilliance of Dragon Age: Origins is two pronged: the characters and the illusion of control.

(I contend the award for strongest story on a pure console game goes to FFX but that is a debatable point.)

JRPGs bother me because the cut scenes have gotten longer, the choices fewer, and the save points — save points! In 2010! Save points are a criminal offense! — have become scarce. It stopped being a game and turned into a carnival ride. I nearly threw Star Ocean IV across the room when the cutscenes made it to 20 minutes long. It’s called “Cut Scene Hell” for a reason. When SOIV froze I sent it back to Gamefly. I was done 10 hours in. These games feel like 50 hour long interactive movies where the character makes no more choice in the story. They are boring.

Dragon Age: Origins forces the player to make actual choices. Even if the choices are ultimately illusory and the Foozle still must be fought, most (but not all) of the major decisions are through dialogue trees and the result of player choice. The player can choose not to get Sten’s sword. The player can put this dwarf or that dwarf on the Throne. It doesn’t make much difference in the end but it sure seems that way. Returning control to the player is key: the player feels they have a stake in the outcome of the game. Emotional investment keeps players returning over and over. “But I could play evil! I can make this awful choice to see what happens! Awesome!” Returning control back to the player is the core of a great game — like Fallout 3, like Mass Effect (also BioWare). All hail the return of the player actually playing a game!

The true strength is on the characters. The party members have beautifully drawn personalities. They interact with one another. They talk. They argue. They squabble in your party — Wynne explaining where babies come from to Alistair had to be the best exchange in the entire game. The game supports interesting choices and party dynamics between the player and the characters and between the multiple characters. The choices in party composition and party dynamics almost feels real, not just a bunch of scripted events by trigger points. Of course, they are scripted events by trigger points, but the tricky part is to smooth that over and make the characters feel spontaneous and real. JRPG characters feel like caricatures in pretty clothes — Dragon Age: Origins characters felt like people. You find yourself doing the wacky sidequest not because the sidequest is interesting but because you can take Zevran and Oghren in your party and who knows what wackiness might come from the two of them together.

I readily admit: I cannot remember the names of the main characters in most of the JRPGs I have played. They just fade. They were called what again? But I will certainly remember Alistair and Morrigan for a long time.

To sum up: incredibly detailed world, awesome characters, short on the cutscenes, lots of serious meat, and raising the bar for gameplay. It was awesome. Also, in the end game, you get to do what you always wanted to do in every CRPG ever: you get to kick the Bad Guy in the junk. How great is that?

Rock Band: The Beatles

General Option: Awesome

Review: Having been raised on a strong diet of the Beatles and having vivid memories of my parents arguing over the Paul is Dead symbolism on the cover of Abbey Road, I have about 95% of the Beatles catalog committed to memory. I was a little iffy going into the game because the music is such a part of my DNA but I really do enjoy being able to play guitar and sing the songs. The selection of songs was a little puzzling at first — why Taxman instead of Eleanor Rigsby from Revolver, for instance — until I realized the song choices were heavily weighted to George Harrison songs because his son was the one who brought the project and worked to get the licensing. That’s why you get songs like Within You Without You instead of something easier to sing like Lovely Rita from Sgt. Peppers.

I find playing through story mode to be very interesting. I don’t usually listen to the albums in chronological order, and playing through gives me this sense of a band who went from being this bar-blues-band/rip off of Chuck Berry to a group with their own unique sound that still built all the pop songs over a 12-bar blues sequence to a group that tried to push what they could do musically (which culminates with Dig a Pong in the Rock Band collection, in my opinion).

I have mostly played guitar and done a little singing, although the singing is more on par with “what I do in the truck alone on the way to work.” Generally I find the songs well balanced although the guitar is a little picky about being late on hitting the notes. We haven’t explored the harmony option because we need another microphone. Also, Katie is insisting on singing the songs, so we’re happy for No Fail mode. I need to get off my butt and start mastering songs in Hard.

I actually don’t feel dorky playing the songs on a plastic guitar instead of my perfectly good real guitars, surprisingly enough, despite owning piles and piles and piles of Beatles guitar tabs. Maybe because a) I cannot play the harder songs anyway and b) the singing is about the same if it’s car-signing or if it is rock band singing.

Best Songs in the Collection: Something and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / With a Little Help from My Friends. We haven’t played yet Dig a Pony but it’s one of my favorites. Katie loves to sing Yellow Submarine, but then again, who doesn’t?

Notable Songs Missing: Help! Penny Lane. Your Mother Should Know. I wish Because was on there but it’s a little more obscure. Most of the 1st album of the White Album. However, the albums are all coming out, starting with Abbey Road, then Sgt Peppers, and Rubber Soul.

Entertaining Easter Egg: There’s a special reward for playing the 32-bar guitar solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps on Expert without missing a note. I joked this was the special Eric Clapton award since the White Album recording is a Clapton solo.

Random Comments: Twist and Shout and Boys are both covers played by the Beatles of other bands.

I will probably make more comments about Maxwell’s Silver Hammer being the stupidest pop song in existence after Abbey Road is downloadable and I can play it. Who writes an ironic happy pop song in a major key about stalking and double murder?

I found musty live 1964 Beatles concert footage on YouTube this morning. For some reason I cannot remember the song but Ringo is just going crazy on those drums. He looks like a mid-70s punk drummer with that stripped down set. It was awesome.

Video Game Frenzy Weekend!

I indulged in my favorite time-wasting habit in a big way this weekend and previewed four (!!) games. This included my first major foray into the XBox360 Marketplace which turned out, much to my surprise, to be a positive experience.

Marketplace Games:

1. The Secret of Monkey Island SE

LucasArts upgraded the graphics, the interface, and added new voice acting to the original Secret of Monkey Island for the Xbox360. It’s Monkey Island! It’s a download from the Xbox Marketplace! It’s $4! How can you not download Monkey Island for $4? It’s MONKEY ISLAND! I am waving my hands around and doing the “go play it” dance.

It has an integrated hint system for the truly lazy who needs to get prodded in the right direction once a while. I thought the interface with using a controller rather than a mouse was a little strange to get used to at first but I did get the hang of it. I was totally consumed by this for an hour and change before Katie started getting real wiggly with me and we needed to get out the door. I cannot imagine anything that is a better buy at $4.

2. Castle Crashers

This totally adorable side-scrolling beat things up game is totally adorable. You can look at it here. You grab swords, you beat things up, you occasionally kill a boss, and the graphics are super amazingly cute. It also has 2-4 player cooperative and 2-4 player online multiplayer. It’s $6. We played through the demo level last night but haven’t bought the full game yet, though.

Real Games:

1. Street Fighter IV

I may or may not have ruined my left hand playing Street Fighter II many years ago… *shifty eyes*. I have played a huge number of fighters including variations on Street Fighter on consoles for years and the only game that has ever really pleased me is Soul Caliber II. (THE SOUL STILL BURNS.) This game comes very close: the game is stripped down to essential Street Fighter II-ness without all the silly crap accompanying fighters recently. The control scheme is very responsive and it is possible to play with a standard controller. Move list has been returned to the essential moves. Arcade play, two-player play, online competitive play, downloadable content, leaderboards, etc. It is an excellent fighter. The issue, of course, is that after playing for 2 hours on Saturday my hand still throbs, so I don’t know if I /can/ play it any more. The Dhalsim animations are awesome.

2. Star Ocean IV: The Last Hope

Star Ocean is a funny franchise from Square Enix because, unlike FF, all the games are set in a coherent and contiguous universe. However, I almost threw Star Ocean III across the room at the 70 hour mark. I go into IV with that in mind.

So far, the game has a compelling enough story to keep me playing for a little while. It’s a “prequel” which starts with Mankind’s first forays into the stars to find planets to colonize and inhabit. The combat is a real-time Tales of Symphonia-style action system that is RPG-like but allows you to mash some buttons to some effect which keeps the combat from seems too automated. However, I am only 4 hours in and these games usually fall over at the 10 hour mark so it needs another night of play. I don’t see any major glitches in the code or anything too stupid… yet.

Funny, I had a more positive overall experience with the Marketplace games than the very expensive DVD games. I suspect the future of video gaming is in the smaller, cheaper downloadables. Sure, they are not as whizz-bang full featured as the DVD games, but I am wondering if SFIV is worth $60 for the DVD. Best game of the weekend? Monkey Island, hand’s down.

Also, I’ve started a Fallout – 3 game, which I hope to get back to.

Added bonus — the web comics I currently read:

Dinosaur Comics, Diesel Sweeties, FreakAngels, Order of the Stick, Overcompensating, PartiallyClips, Penny Arcade, PHD Comics, Questionable Content, Sinfest, and XKCD. Cat and Girl and Wondermark both were added over the weekend. I’m still previewing the other comics people sent in that require me to read 2-3 years of backlog (*cough girl genius cough*). Winner of the most compelling comic is Digger, which is on the top of my review list.

Thanks to all who contributed to my addiction!