Monday, November 30

Left 4 Dead 2 Scavenge Strategy Guide

If you were to look at my Steam profile, you might notice that I've been playing a whole lot of Left 4 Dead 2 lately. 90% of that time has gone towards a very special mode called Scavenge. Eventually, I figured that I should put my knowledge to use and share my strategic knowledge of Scavenge with the masses. So, I wrote a strategy guide. GameFaqs has been a very helpful site to me over the years, and I really appreciate the selfless work of the community strategy writers. I decided to give back a little and submitted my strategy guide to GameFaqs. Miraculously, the guide was accepted, ten pages of strategic dribble discussing such nonsense such as Steam etiquette and teamwork.

If you, too, fancy some Left 4 Dead 2 Scavenge, then feel free to check out the strategy guide. I would love some comments and suggestions about the guide as well, so feel free to leave a comment and let me know. If you have any questions about Scavenge, please send me an email (, and I'll get back to you promptly. Thanks, Valve, for such an amazing mode.

Saturday, November 21

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity Review

Caution? I scoff at the notion. My desires can be obtained only with a lust for self-destruction. Only greed. Only a misplaced conception of self-preservation can earn what I seek. Only, a reckless disregard for gravity.

For never has there been a more apt title for a game than AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Plummeting through the air, disembodied buildings hurtling by, I lurch forward in my chair, lift my feet, and smash the W key as hard as I am able. There is a gut-centric thrill derived from success, sometimes obtained perfectly, as planned, and other times because, upon you this day, some goddess of luck smiles warmly. Aaaaa!'s BASE jumping experience is an acute balance between those actions which have been precisely-memorized, gracefully-performed, and those substantially less coordinated reactions, twitch-perfect. 

By Dejobaan games, Aaaaa! harkens back to the glory days of the arcade genre. High-scores are the substance and succor of the lucrative gameplay, the puppet-master that dictates all emotion. The gameplay structure of Aaaaa! is ridiculously simple, and therefore utterly genius. Tossing yourself (recklessly, always recklessly) from platforms thousands of stories above sea-level, you must maneuver amongst abstractly floating buildings, beams, and turbine fans. Near-misses earns a “kiss” per structure; maintained near-contact earns “hugs.” But whereas hugs will earn only one-hundred points (or “teeth”) each, kisses warrant ten-times that value, incentivizing active, constant movement over sedentary lounging.

Glass scoring plates advance scoring options further, as do groups of fans and protesters, at whom flipping the proper finger gesture, with the correct mouse-click, earns a mouth full of three-thousand teeth. Bird-strikes, tagging government buildings, and stunts, like passing through small openings, reward additional teeth.

And so players swoop about, aiming for kisses, hugs, flip-its, bird-strikes, to obtain the highest score that their piddly wrist can provide. Upon completion of each level, teeth accumulate into an overall star ranking, of five. It is that coveted fifth star that drives replay, that drives all players to a reckless disregard of. . . I keep saying it because it's true.

But it is the level design, the levels in their immaculately specific construction that allow the scoring system to shine. Alas, the level design is the keystone to the arch of gameplay systems. And what a fine, marble keystone it is. Maybe the keystone has a nice engraving, too.

Much like reading poetry, playing each level is a problem-solving effort. Each level begins with a sense of curiosity at the new form, and oftentimes, wonderment. Though the levels may look random, I can assure you, they are quite specific. Levels are comprised of multiple paths, different combinations and arrangements of the various scoring elements. These paths are usually quite subtle and are discerned not immediately, but through multiple replays.

But finding what you believe to be the correct path does not guarantee success. Improvisation, swift reactions, and multi-tasking play a huge part in Aaaaa!. “Pansies!” you'll decry. “That way's for pansies!” It's everything gained or nothing at all. You'll align yourself the superior way, dive faster, swoop a perfect arc on the path of domination. But when you're in the zone, I say with my utmost sincerity, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve. Tag a building. Flip a crowd. Dodge Left. Tag a building. Decisions made in moments of moments, fraught with abandon. Passing within inches above a looming ceiling, a kiss hard-fought, rewards a feeling of euphoria and relief. But, surprisingly, failure yields not the opposite emotion, frustration, but a desire to try again, to complete the path least traveled, hardest won, and best rewarded.

A balance of risk versus reward is a core emotion of Aaaaa!. You see a high-scoring path, and though you aren't entirely sure you can make the swoop in time, you swoop regardless. You need to. Risk is not simply a negative but a conduit of reward. It is the risky stunt that garners the sense of accomplishment, as well as the biggest points. And the risk is worth it, every time.

High-scores often count to tens of thousands, and being so broad, leave level scores wide open for improvement. Aaaaa! supports global leaderboards on Steam and are an enjoyable opportunity for comparison against the masses (I place within the top thirty on several levels. Not bad.). 

Aaaaa! is about harnessing whatever control can be found in a reckless free-fall towards certain doom. Sometimes, you will silence the world around you, not even focusing on the screen, but you will become the free-fall. And from much memorization and well-practiced finger twitching, you will dodge nearly, hug long, kiss every obstacle perfectly, thread the needle, and hit a bird; it is in these moments that the game reveals it's beauty.

Images from IGN. (I couldn't get my image-capturing software to work properly).

Monday, November 16

Borderlands Review

Of the many features Gearbox attempted with Borderlands, shooting takes prize for prettiest lass of the ball. Shooting guns is fun. And though the gun count may impress, it is the range of guns that leaves an impact. Tuned not on a single spectrum but to a menagerie of wavelengths, each gun feels and plays differently. And though not always effective, each gun feels correct in its emotional construction, as if it could feasibly exist. A certain heft in your hands; the muzzle flash properly intense or muted; the boom pitched just so; the recoil sometimes like the kick of a mule, sometimes weak or, by your shoulder, absorbed; and like a conductor orchestrating all other of the gun's events, the tempo of the bullet-stream keeping pace.

Fortunately, much of the player's time will be spent performing the task of shooting. And for many people, this simple pleasure will be enough to fuel and sustain their enjoyment of the game. However, the basic shooting mechanic fails to flourish throughout the game, the game's other features not nourishing but stunting its potential.

Oddly, most of the game's guns have no projectiles, no visible bullets flying through air. But this proves to be a forgettable concern, because visible or no, bullets in Borderlands do in fact travel through the air. There is nothing quite like that finite pause between the leading of one's shot before a dashing enemy – the squeeze of the trigger precisely timed – and the stack of criticals mounted above the splattering enemy's head.

Criticals, oh criticals: flashes of achievement wrought from a multitude of complimentary details: the red “critical” above the enemy's head, the excessive swathes of life slashed from its health. But most impactful of all is the gulf of disparity between body shots and critical shots, a disparity of ridiculous proportions. This damage gap highlights Borderlands' premiere flaw: overcompensation.

Not as positive as an effect as one might think, the polar separation in damage proves to be a double-edged sword. Criticals aren't just uber, they're insanely, astronomically, challenge-diminishingly effective, allowing for enemies to be capped with a single burst. Conversely, the sheer, overt visibility of criticals cause body shots to feel slightly weak by contrast, a mere flash in the pan.

Working with randomly generated weapons cannot be easy, as testament to the evident design of Borderlands. Rather than working in concert, synergistically, with the randomized weapons, every facet of the game suffers from the feature's fallout.

To offset the potential for offensive domination, character defense is perilously low. Enemies die in a shot or two, but so do players. The skills, likewise, are by and large stat boosts, methods of re-balancing the game's mis-scaled variables: pluses to fire rate, pluses to health, pluses to crit damage. Though I bemoan the absence of tactically-creative skills, the statistic system is fun in its own right. My preferred soldier spec favors weapon damage and shield regeneration rate. The shield regeneration is a fun skill to have because it promotes an aggressive style of assault, your shield regeneration kicking in early only after you've downed an enemy.

Though criticals serve as the primary means of fun in Borderlands, they also serve as the only means of not only fun but also success. Left unspayed, criticals run amok throughout the play experience, hindering any allowance for diversity, change, or tactical thought. The enemies in Borderlands come in one variety: those who die via criticals. And of enemy types, by and large, there exist only three: humans, dogs, and spiders. At level twenty-eight, the thousandth Spiderant the player has encountered (this one huge and blue) will die easily, a one-trick pony, the same as the rest of its breed had died: with a shot to the head, and a shot to the abdomen. Every time. For the thousandth time.

Over spans of time, the slightest dash of variety will spice the events: “midget” bandits with shotguns, “brute” bandits that exist solely to soak damage, shielded guards literally requiring criticals. But each will fall the same way, and before too long, each repeated, repeated, repeated foe will rob your spirit of any anticipation for variety in future encounters.

The enemies are not alone in Pandora, as the environments fall fate to the same feeling of bland repetition. Environments have a unique and powerful potential for emotional affectation. I understand how a desert wasteland can evoke feelings of desolation, how god-forsaken trash heaps incite thoughts of desperation. And I did feel these things. At first, I did. But there is a balance to be had.

Considered in isolation, the modular construction of the environments is quite remarkable, I find. Seamlessly integrated and conceptually grandiose, the wastelands, salt flats, and canyons are beautiful to walk through. As well, the game offers a decent amount of environment types. But you can enter only so many wasteland inspired environments before you realize that, yes, you are still in a wasteland, and yes, this particular wasteland looks more or less the same as previous areas. If Gearbox were aiming for a provocative effect with their wasteland motif, I believe they've partially succeeded. But ultimately, the gameplay fails to match the environment's emotional philosophy. Silhouetted against the action – fun, simple, and mindless – the environments in no way endorse or enliven the experience but, being dreary and brown, dull the gunplay, muddy backgrounds through which to traipse.

As a multiplayer game, Borderlands is an interesting study. Multiplayer is an opportunity to hang with friends ad hoc, and in this way, chilling and chatting is about as fun as in any other shared, distanced setting. But as far as it delivers effective, fun gameplay, multiplayer is lacking. Though the game makes attempts at creating truly co-operative gameplay, “co-op” rarely excels past shooting the same enemies at the same time. The exception to simplistic co-op is the soldier's healing skill and turret support, gameplay akin to the medic in Team Fortress 2 and a spec I found to be very enjoyable when playing with friends.

Yet more debilitating to the multiplayer experience is pacing. While sorting through loot is a welcome option while gunning solo, online, friends grow restless and charge ahead (especially when lacking voice chat). The scaled enemies pose no difficulty to fewer players, those who do engage likely plenty savvy to sweep each enemy cluster. Even amidst the battle, three friends in tow, one's own potency is brought to question, ill-compared to the power of allies: “How much of this damage is my own doing? How many of these kills are mine?” Personal contributions feel diminished. The sense of achievement is lost to the masses.

With more difficult enemies, the quality of loot is scaled as well. In multiplayer, finding better guns is likely, and enjoyable when it occurs. But disembark from the online world, and again venture solo through Pandora, you will quickly realize that your equipped guns are far and away superior to any threat you are liable to face. The math is simple: uber guns plus weaker enemies equals pwn. Like a domino chain, however, the effects worsen. Now wielding superior weaponry, newly dropped loot from inferior enemies is comparatively weak, useless, and utterly insignificant. The entire loot reward system collapses. All excitement for finding better loot dissipates as you trudge through pointless gun after pointless gun. Eventually, you stop looking altogether. I used no more than five combat rifles during my entire play-through of Borderlands, each gun lasting me six or so levels. If I have one suggestion for players who venture into Pandora, choose either single or multiplayer for a character, but never both.

“The devil is in the details,” my mother always said. It's amazing how greatly the user interface can impact a play experience. And Borderlands for PC has interface issues in spades.

Let there be no question that Borderlands was designed for consoles primarily, and then ported to PC. I take no issue with developing for consoles first; I feel that games should be designed for whichever platform fits that game best. I also have no problem with ports that should seemingly fit, especially ports to the platform that founded the entire first-person-shooter genre. What does bother me are ports that are done just plain wrong.

Where to start? How about this: the use key reloads your gun. Every time your gun is missing a bullet, and you want to pick up some loot, you'll manually reload your gun. Never mind that the manual reload is separately mapped to another key altogether; no, Borderlands apparently needs double-mapping of its reload command. Other issues: the game offers no anti-aliasing, meaning shadows and angles look jagged, not sharp. Much like Bioshock for PC, the mouse wheel scrolls through guns backwards, a decision I abhor. The options menu, for me, chose not to scroll at all, but required I push a little arrow at the bottom. When scrolling through any menu, if you move your mouse, the scroll will reset to where you've hovered. Voice chat cannot be turned off anywhere; you have to unplug your microphone if you want not to talk. One of the worst, most annoying glitches of all, every time you open a menu, your loaded bullet count will revert back to the gun's native clip-size (plus class mod bonuses), subtracting the bullets gained from skills that improve magazine size. Every time you check your inventory, oh, what's this, my gun isn't fully loaded any more. It sounds trivial; trust me, its not.

Note to developers: next time you announce DLC before your game has even been released, perhaps you should spend that time fixing all of the terrible porting errors and glitches present in the original.

Lots of people like Borderlands. Maybe you could be one of these people. The fun of shooting things is really where Borderlands excels, and I congratulate the game for this achievement. Because of repetitive enemies, the shooting design never expands beyond aiming for criticals, and the other game's calling card, procedurally generated loot, fails to perform as you rarely find loot better than what you're already hauling. Borderlands stumbles throughout because it is constantly overcompensating for imbalanced features.

Wednesday, November 4

The Nail in the Coffin

Earlier today, NGai Croal wrote an article on Edge Online about the recent controversy over Kurt Cobain's appearance in Guitar Hero 5 and the lack of The Beatles' support anywhere but in The Beatles: Rock Band. He made an interesting argument, cautioning developers and publishers on future troubled-waters of licensing. A quotation, if you would:
 If it makes no difference that a fictional female avatar is singing male vocals and vice versa, why should it matter that a Kurt Cobain avatar sings Ring Of Fire or a Johnny Cash avatar sings Smells Like Teen Spirit?  [. . .] The only thing developers and publishers can do is recognize that as their products become more popular and their visuals more true to life, these and other thorny issues will only become more prevalent
Fascinatingly, just a minute ago, GameSpy posted the news that the band No Doubt is suing Activision over the band's appearance in Band Hero.
[No Doubt] took specific offense against the use of female singer Gwen Stefani's likeness to sing the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," which references sex with prostitutes while Gwen's avatar sings and acts like a male.
Wow. Talk about irony. Does Croal have premonitory visions? Did he have insider knowledge? Both irrelevant. Because he sure as heck hit the nail on the head this time, and not a minute too soon. Pretty darn interesting, if I do say so.