Archive for March, 2011

Impulse Acquired By Gamestop

Posted: March 31, 2011 in PC
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Impulse, Stardock’s digital distribution service, has been acquired by Gamestop. This will, Stardock (developer of Sins of A Solar Empire) assures, not affect them in any way as the companies are separate entities from one another, and users of the service will not have their accounts or purchases affected in any way for the forseeable future.

Impulse is a competitor with Valve’s Steam (and one that has a decent if not overwhelming market share), while Gamestop is the monolithic Starbucks of game sellers. In spite of my personal distaste for Gamestop and their policies, this could be good for Impulse as well as well as opening up a new chapter in Gamestop history. As much as I love having hard copies, digital distribution seems to be where the future of game purchasing lies, and many companies have taken measures to combat Gamestop’s used game sales eating into their own profits.

Mass Effect 2 Arrival DLC Review

Return of the Shepard

An Alliance agent has been captured in Batarian space. Admiral Hackett contacts Shepard with a mission: Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the spy?

Such is the setup for Mass Effect 2‘s latest (and reportedly, last) downloadable content mission. The mission, like the other DLCs, can be accessed from whatever point you’re playing from as with the other three DLCs. So far, Mass Effect 2‘s DLC missions have ranged from great to greater than great. While Arrival is probably the least of the DLCs, lacking the style of  Stolen Memories, the scope and moral decisions of Overlord, or the…well, let’s just say the Shadow Broker DLC was awesome, and Arrival is less awesome, but by no means bad.

Mass Effect 2 - ArrivalThe DLC’s first half (I’ll take care not to spoil the story, as it’s supposed to tie into Mass Effect 3) offers a few opportunities to take different paths, allowing you to slip by guards stealthily if you so choose. While there are no Deus Ex-style sneak attacks, I enjoyed being given a fresh option to not take the Rambo approach to infiltration. In any case, it’s still the same great Mass Effect 2 gameplay it’s always been- the same game I’ve liked enough to spend 60+ hours on. The second half doesn’t involve any sneaking around (as everyone is alerted to your presence early on).

The biggest problem to me, and definitely the biggest blow to the mission is that it’s a solo mission. The best part about BioWare’s games, to me at least, is the characters. The only recurring character that appears in the mission is Joker, and he has no lines. So all your favorite characters – Garrus, Tali, Mordin and the rest of your ragtag band all sit this one out. Now, I’m sure this was probably due to the fact that it would cost quite a bit to get the cast together (although I’m sure they’ll all be together again for Mass Effect 3 anyway…) and it’s probably easier to write. But like I said, a Mass Effect mission just feels so dry without its characters. It just feels like it’s missing something without the character interaction.

The lack of team play aside, Mass Effect 2 – Arrival  is not a bad deal for seven bucks. I clocked in about an hour and a half of gameplay. There are no new arms or armor, but you can pick up a couple of upgrades and some credits, ammo and resources. The main point, I think, is to thread the game with Mass Effect 3. However, we’ll have to wait a few months to find out how successful the threading is, and until then, what’s better than a fresh ME2 mission?

BNBGAMING Recommended Award

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Times have changed in regard to the strategy guide. It has been known by many names over the years: the hint book, the “Official Game Secrets” or, as one of my elementary school friends called them, “code books”. This seemed an unlikely moniker, as the books rarely contained cheat codes, although as time has gone on, some strategy guides have started to refrain from including any real strategies…perhaps it’s as appropriate a name as any.

Back in the day, I loved strategy guides. In the days before everyone had high-speed internet (consider that I didn’t have a home internet connection until late 1997, and even then this was dial-up with a prescribed amount of hours per month), they could even be a necessity. There always stood a fine line between getting stuck forever and “cheating” by buying a guide with a walkthrough. When I was a kid, a new game cost $50 and I could usually only afford one every few months, so I liked to make it count. Throwing an extra $13 out to quell the frustration of hearing “I can’t use these things together” a thousand times wasn’t a bad deal at all.

Now, it wasn’t entirely dishonorable to pick up a guide. In the case of some adventure games (especially when a fickle text parser was involved, INFOCOM!), it was either pick up the hint book or spend months trying everything imaginable. In some cases, hint books were packed in with the game. In the case of some games (Sierra’s King’s Quest IV being a prime example), this was merciful. Downright charitable. There’s a reason the Myst strategy guide says “over 1 million in print.”

Necessary.

Strategy guides, as they grew out of hint books and into their own in the mid-’90s, sometimes had a lot of extra content in them that you might not find in one today- interviews with developers, production artwork, and in the case of the Duke Nukem 3D: Plutonium Pak guide, a segment on using the game’s included level editor.

In my own opinion, the best strategy guides were the ones for open-ended, freeform strategy and simulation games like Civilization II, SimCity 2000, or X-COM (I needed that Terror From the Deep guide). The thing I like about these guides is that, due to the way their games played, they weren’t restricted to providing rote instructions on how to successfully finish missions or find items.

In recent years, strategy guides have, for this writer at least, become increasingly irrelevant. There’s been a trend of games being more linear, more hand-holding, or having game mechanics that eliminate the need for guides. I believe the last guide I purchased was for Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem or Metroid Prime (both of them Nintendo’s typically high quality ‘Player’s Guides’, if I’m not mistaken). It seems that even the most ‘complex’ and ‘realistic’ games make printed guides unnecessary. The Call of Duty series has very straightforward maps as opposed to the labyrinthine corridors of DOOM. In Fallout 3, for all of its non-linear, go-everywhere glory, there is a compass marker to lead you to your objectives. The only time I needed a guide was to collect all the Vault-Tec bobble heads, for which I used GameFAQs.

Which brings me to the next point: even in games where you are having a hard time, does it really make sense to shell out fifteen to twenty dollars for the solution to a problem you’re going to look at once?

And in that case, I think using a guide on a game like one of the Fallout games, using someone else’s guide, defeats the purpose of playing the game, of building your own character and having your own unique experience with the game. If you’re following someone else’s advice in a game that’s so open-ended, where the game experience changes radically based on how you choose to develop your character. A few tips aren’t a bad idea, but I would argue that playing Fallout the way someone else tells you is just going through the motions. You may as well watch that person play.

But, I digress.

Alan Emrich, co-author of exhaustive strategy guides for the first two Civilization games (among others), puts forth criticism on the strategy guide publishing industry on his Decline of Guides web page:

To obtain more sales, strategy guide publishers (primarily Prima, but Brady and Sybex, for their official strategy guides, are, I suspect, just as guilty) want to release each official strategy guide as close to the game’s release date as possible. Citing facts and figures, they know that timing, not quality, is the primary engine for sales of their strategy guides.

This is not a theory! I have personally been told this by several representatives at Prima. They’re very open about this policy. Sure, all of the publishers would like to have the best quality book. However, speed has been proven (to them) to be far more important for getting the bucks (and, thus, justifying the extra money they’re paying to the game publishers for the official title) out of your pockets. Basically, if you’re playing the game now, you want the strategy guide for it now. It’s almost as if the book publishers perceive their books as impulse items to people just learning a computer game.

I agree with Emrich on this point. Go into GameStop on the day a  major game releases (for the sake of this article, let’s say you went in to buy Dragon Age II). You walk in to pick up your preorder, and there’s a shelf of glossy Dragon Age II guides just in front of the counter. I spent some time working in retail, and we always kept our impulse buy items – candy, chewing gum, gossip magazines – up close to the counter, so customers could just toss it onto the counter on a whim.

He also brings up that strategy guides often include a ‘basics’ section, essentially the manual that should have been included with the game. This brings me to a quote from one of PC Gamer’s articles on a supposed board meeting on their mascot’s fictitious game, Gravy Trader. “Manual? Make them buy a strategy guide!”

In addition, the push for strategy guides that are out when the game comes out can be hair-pulling when the developers decide to change a puzzle around at the last minute or cut content altogether. The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard and Silent Hill guides both suffered from massively overhauled puzzles due to beta versions of the game being used to write the guide. Yet amazingly, this isn’t the worst instance of a strategy guide being hurt by publisher lead times.

The worst by far was the Final Fantasy IX guide. Not content to simply charge you money for a printed guide, in places the book split information between print and going online to get information. This was to push registrations to Square’s PlayOnline service. This was met with plenty of backlash.

It was around this time that I started turning to GameFAQs when I needed a guide at all. Games were, if not necessarily getting easier, becoming clearer in objectives, providing things like quest arrows and detailed automaps and being generous with checkpoints. Let’s just say that many games of the 2000s, from God of War to BioShock and beyond, don’t require a whole lot of investigation or careful thinking. Games are increasingly likely to hold your hand. Since I bought my PS3, I think the only time I had to consult a guide was, again, for all the bobble-heads found in Fallout 3.

While I’d love to see some games get the massive, detailed guides that they deserve and are more than just walkthroughs, I feel the time of the strategy guide has passed, and more often than not they are, in fact, outdated by both the internet and game mechanics.

Part 1 may be found Here.

When I opened Mass Effect 2, I was more than a little surprised to see that the manual was…more of a booklet. No, not even a booklet. It was a pamphlet. No, even smaller. It can only be described as a trifold leaflet. And it wasn’t even a manual, to be honest. It was just a little slip that essentially told me the manual was on the disc.

 

You call this documentation?

Now, I don’t particularly like on-disc manuals, mostly because I like to be able to have my reference material handy. I understand that the future is supposed to be paperless and all, but call me old-fashioned: I like my well-written and illustrated paper manuals.

When I started playing PC games in the early to mid ’90s, games had a tendency to come with a detailed manual, a reference card and, more often than not, “feelies”, which were extras that served not only to provide cool collectibles, but to draw the player deeper into the game world. These would include things like mini-newspapers, maps, and other helpful little goodies; and often these goodies were important components of copy protection (before the age of CD keys or invasive DRM we had to scour manuals for such and such word on whichever page number – hey, it’s still better than SecuROM). If you ever picked up a game by Infocom or Origin, you’re probably familiar with feelies. It was kind of like the stuff you have to pay twenty or thirty extra dollars for in the collector’s editions these days.

Now, the Mass Effect 2 leaflet claims that it’s putting the manual on disc in an effort for EA to reduce their impact on the environment. On the other hand, there’s a separate leaf to provide the Cerberus Network code and a third slip to advertise Dragon Age II. Now I have no problem with advertising or with saving a few trees, but honestly? 2k and Bethesda don’t have any problems printing out full-color, detailed manuals. Now, when you pay full-price for a game, is it too much to ask for twenty-five or so pages of text?

In the case of an RPG like one of the Fallouts, or Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, I like to look at the perks or abilities or whatever the particular game has. I come from a tabletop background so I like to think ahead a little, plan out how I’m going to build my character. Again, call me old fashioned (I’m currently playing through Baldur’s Gate, with a couple of Second Edition DnD rulebooks handy, and the game is wonderfully faithful to the rules). I’m sure I’m in the lunatic fringe here, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. Right? (echoes). RIGHT?

But in any case, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been gaming for any length of time (especially PC gamers), that the contents and even size of game boxes have been shrinking faster than an ice cube in Death Valley in August. Remember how big game boxes used to be? Well, anyway, I figured I’d draw some attention to the ever-shrinking amount of decent game manuals.

Share Your Thoughts: What do you think? Is a good manual a helpful addition to a game, or is Chad simply living in the age of grunge music and Crystal Pepsi?

(Join me for part 2 where I’ll talk about strategy guides!)

Well, I decided to download the demo for the new Mortal Kombat from the PSN, to get a taste of testing my might.

I haven’t played a Mortal Kombat game in at least ten years, and it’s probably been at least five years since I’ve played a new fighting game. It’s far from my favorite genre, but I figured it would be worth it to revisit one of the classic games of my misspent youth.

Upon starting the demo, I was greeted with the title screen, chose the only available options ( FIGHT > LADDER) and was presented with the character select screen. The demo lets you choose from Scorpion, Sub Zero, Johhny Cage or Mileena. I chose Scorpion, as he’s been my favorite MK character for years, and also because I don’t think I could live with myself if I played as Johnny Cage.

Immediately after, I was dropped into a fight with Sub Zero. It was an easy fight, which is a good thing, because I had to figure the controls out. They’re responsive and solid, and I’m sure they’d be even better if I could have gone into training mode to figure out what I was doing. I like the controls – they’re fluid and easy to pick up, and I managed to figure out a couple of combos and throws (it wasn’t until the second fight that I learned how to block). For most of the fight, Sub Zero just stood there while I wailed on him (Sub Zero IQ perhaps? Couldn’t help myself). And when it came time to FINISH HIM…I punched him.

I really must learn how to perform fatalities.

The second fight was Scorpion vs. Scorpion. Ah, the mirror match. This one was kind of a pain, mostly because I couldn’t tell myself from…myself. However, it was nice to be challenged after the lobotomized Sub Zero beatdown, and I discovered Scorpion’s throw and TOASTY! moves. It was at this point that I really started to get a feel for the game. And I’ll be honest, I’m liking it.

Again I failed to perform a fatality (and honestly I never figured them out), but I did manage to get a combo breaker in during the Mileena fight. By now I’m noticing that Scorpion says the same “Vengeance will be mine!” before every match – hopefully we get a few more sound bites than that in the full version.

My two cents? The game looks to be shaping up nicely, with a lot of gameplay modes available (though blacked out for now) on the main menu, and the Krypt as shown in the trailer at the end of the demo looks to offer a lot of extra content, too. I do have to wonder why Sonya looks so much like Nina Williams from Tekken but…eh, who really cares?

Plus Kratos. Makes me proud to own a PS3.

Count me in for looking forward to the finished product.

Last month, Telltale Games announced that, among other properties, they would be developing new entries in the King’s Quest series. For me, this was met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Telltale has been carrying the torch of the classic adventure game for the past few years (reviving them when most others had given up on them, to astounding success). On the other hand…this is King’s Quest. This is the grandaddy, the crown prince (pun intended) in the pantheon of graphic adventures.

Now, as much as I’ve enjoyed Telltale Games’ contributions (especially for their humor content), I do have some major concerns with them taking on this series. For all the things I love about Telltale, there are some things that always bug me about their games. First and foremost is their lack of challenge – an experienced adventure gamer can finish one in a couple of hours at most. King’s Quest games were many things in their day, but quick and easy was not one of them. While the first King’s Quest game is probably solvable in thirty minutes if you know what you’re doing, you aren’t going to know that the first time. The Sierra games reward things like patience, ingenuity, and occasionally spitting in the face of logic.

The difficulty of a Sierra game could border on cruel and unusually sadistic at times. If that isn’t to the taste of everyone, I hope Telltale offers a selection of difficulties (not unlike LucasArts’ Curse of Monkey Island offered normal and “Mega Monkey” difficulties).

And another thing: King’s Quest needs to be more dangerous than Telltale’s other titles. If you’ve played King’s Quest, or Space Quest, or any of the classic Sierra games, then you know that you can and will end up dying a few times. Thus far, Telltale has followed the LucasArts game design philosophy of not allowing the player character to die. This has been fine for Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island, which are both continuations of LucasArts series. But in continuing a Sierra series they should bring the you-can-and-will-die-frequently-and-horribly design philosophy back. It may seem inconvenient, but death in Sierra games could actually act as an anti-frustration feature when you were stuck. Because once in a while, when you can’t solve something, you just wanted to get Roger Wilco vaporized or march Larry Laffer in front of oncoming traffic in a cathartic moment of killing your idiot hero, complete with hilarious description. Something I’ve occasionally wanted to do to Guybrush Threepwood, and never been able to.

An essential part of the King’s Quest experience.

There is also the problem of creative control. King’s Quest has always been Roberta Williams’ series, and when she wasn’t writing it she put it in equally capable hands (most notably Jane Jensen’s in VI). While I don’t doubt Telltale can translate the style of generally solving problems through wits rather than violence, I do wonder what direction they’ll take the feel of the game in. The games were pretty consistent for the first six installments, never going too dark or too light. King’s Quest VII kept the tone while giving the game a Disney-esque graphical makeover, while VIII, almost universally considered to be the weakest of the series, went to a more generic (and darker) fantasy setting with added combat. Since then, Roberta Williams retired from the game design business when Sierra was acquired by Vivendi, and as such probably won’t have anything to do with the new game.

The new game should strive to hit the stylistic sweet spot of King’s Quest V and VI.

However, since Telltale has gone to the lengths of having Steve Purcell, Ron Gilbert, and Bob Gale involved in their respective franchises, it would be nice to see some of the designers involved in King’s Quest. The two best candidates for this would be Josh Mandel (who returned to reprise his role as King Graham in the fan-made remakes of KQ I-III, and in any case should probably be Graham’s only voice), as well as King’s Quest VI writer and designer of the Gabriel Knight series, Jane Jensen (whose latest game Gray Matter recently released stateside, and which I will eventually get around to reviewing). I’d personally like to see Jane Jensen involved because I’d saw my own leg off to play a new Gabriel Knight, and this seems like it could swing the door open for it.

Finally, I’d like to see Telltale improve the graphical engine they use. They’ve been using the same engine for the past five or six years, and King’s Quest seems like the perfect opportunity for them to trot out a fresh engine. The original King’s Quest games were always on the cutting edge of their times, utilizing things like 16-color graphics cards, mouse control, CD-ROM technology and, eventually, 3D graphics engines. This is no place to phone it in, Telltale.

This was as impressive in 1984 as Uncharted 2 was in 2009.

Now, I don’t want it to sound like I’m an overly demanding fanboy – I genuinely want the new King’s Quest to rock, to see Graham and Valanice and their brood return after an interminable fourteen years. I’m rooting for you, Telltale. I’m eager to return to Daventry and to see the glory of the old days restored.

Don’t let me and the legions of fans down, guys. I know you can do it.

Hail and well met, adventurer. Good Old Games has recently added 1999’s Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, as well as Heroes of Might and Magic IV: Complete, two of the final jewels in New World Computing’s classic series (as VIII and IX were not very well received, and the series was taken over by UbiSoft after Heroes IV). Might and Magic VII is a classic first-person RPG like its predecessors, and Heroes of Might and Magic IV is a turn-based strategy game. These games and their predecessors are now available in GOG’s catalogue.

If the only first-person fantasy RPGs you’ve played are the Elder Scrolls games, I advise you to check out Might and Magic VII. It’s modern enough that you don’t have to deal with wholly archaic graphics and interfaces (as the series reaches back into the 1980s), and still retains the classic Might and Magic flavor.