Sunday Time Waster: The Irony of This Column

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I should spend the time it takes to write these Sunday Time Waster columns playing games because I don’t have much time to play them. Sure, as a group we in the media play most, if not all, of the games as they come out, plowing through them like we’re watching an entire season of Mad Men in one sitting via Netflix. When you do that, sure, you technically see all of the shows and can discuss plot points with other fans, but your experience is going to be a little different from the person who watched it during the regular season, eagerly awaiting each week’s episode just to see how Christina Hendricks can fit into that dress….

For a lot of game writers, the products we review are disposable. Sometimes, they have to be simply because the product isn’t very good but other times it’s impossible to really dig inside a game, to get to know it inside and out. You can make the case that you don’t need to do that in order to do the job, but the number of games I feel I know on that level truthfully is limited – even after “completing” a game it’s not the same as the person who pays $60 and spends weeks or even months with it.

When you write about games either as a full time freelancer or (I’d argue especially as) an editor you get a very limited amount of time with a game before you have to write an evaluation of it. For most websites that’s roughly a week. Seven days to play a game, think about what you played, and then whip up some magical words of wisdom on whether or not you should buy it. Seven days for a game that could have taken years to develop. Of course, as I have said many times, I try not to look at reviews in that light. Who am I to tell you to buy a game or not? All I can do is relay my experience with something and you can judge for yourself if my criticisms matter to you. I’m no mind reader.

It’s why review scores are totally useless.

In truth, I miss print writing. Well, print writing as it was in the “old days” of the late 90s. Longer lead times—sometimes more than two weeks to review a game. It’s one of the reasons I run later reviews on GameShark. Ask the people who write there; I rarely even hand out hard deadlines. Our reviews are later than most sites as a result but I like giving writers a chance to let a game breathe. I hate power game reviews. Gamers know their games better than the critics do. That’s not a jab at the people who work in this field but it’s also impossible to deny. My friend who has played Halo 3 since release knows that game far, far better than anyone who played it for 7-10 days and wrote a review.

When you find a game that you like, how much do you play it before succumbing to the lure of GameStop or Amazon for your next fix? I find myself struggling with this a great deal and it’s one of the downsides of doing this job. We are constantly putting our heads down and acting like a fullback on 4th and 1 and running straight ahead through these games – even games that are not meant to be plowed through. Sure, your typical action game might contain an eight to ten hour campaign with typical multiplayer modes thrown in but what about other types of games?

I reviewed Shogun 2, loved it, and played it for as long as I could before being forced to move on to other projects. I literally don’t have the time to play games post review for any serious length of time – Out of the Park Baseball being an exception because of our online league which I fiddle with for about 30 minutes a day. Perhaps people with different life styles can do that, but I have a wife, a ten year old daughter who wants to spend time with me doing things that don’t involve videogames. I love to read, I play basketball three times a week, I’m a music junkie, I play boardgames with family and friends when I can – I like to think I have a life outside of videogames so sitting down and playing another long campaign in Shogun 2 simply isn’t possible.

Last night I sat down and played the brilliant PC game Hannibal: Rome and Carthage for about an hour. It was great. Smashing Romans with my elephants, not caring that it was historically inaccurate. I didn’t finish the game and I doubt I will. It was an hour of gaming for no other reason than to simply ‘play a game’. That’s rare. Ironically enough I am playing FEAR 3 at the moment for no other reason than to play FEAR 3. As a gamer at heart, I miss that – a lot. Of course NCAA 12 will show up Tuesday and I’ll get to work on that review and Out of the Park 12 is out now and I need to get cracking on that too. Panzer Corps drops July 11th. Warhammer 40K Kill Team is right around the corner. So is Madden. And I have other articles to edit for GameShark. Then there’s are work here at NHS. The cycle continues.

Every job, almost no matter what that job is, can turn into…a job. I’m not naive about this sort of thing though; my father worked 30 years in a steel mill, and I worked summer jobs there so I know how cool this job is compared to “real work”. In fact it’s a big reason I vowed …not to do that. That said, Shogun 2, even with all of its great post release patch support will have to wait.

I might as well uninstall it.


Just a heads up — we’re running a new contest this week. Make sure to stop by, I’m thinking Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.

Batman: Arkham City 12 Minute Gameplay Video

Sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D in Review

Let’s get it out of the way up front. No, you can’t delete your save file from your Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D cartridge. For unclear reasons likely tied to losses incurred by aftermarket sales, Capcom decided to ship the game with one unalterable save slot. So this means that high scores and unlocked content can’t be reset.

Although corporately draconian, it’s also not really that big of a deal and it’s definitely not enough to warrant Amazon bombing or demagogic bloggers resisting it as some kind of “cause”. RE: The Mercenaries isn’t a narrative game, it’s the same high score attack mode that the last couple of numbered installments of the series have featured as bonus content. It’s a high score game parceled out in selectable levels. Better performance nets better grades which in turn unlock skills (all individually upgradable), new levels, and new characters. But believe me, you’re not really missing out on anything by being forbidden to play with Jack Krauser until you clear a certain stage in the game. And if you happen to pick up a used copy with some really good scores- that just makes the game more challenging.

OK, are we straight on that? The rest of the review follows.

Now, the more important aspect of RE: The Mercenaries is that it is a fun and sometimes addicting game, and it’s one of the better handheld shooters I’ve seen to date if only because the controls aren’t an arthritis-inducing trainwreck and the 3DS is able to churn out a very good-looking third-person action game including some very cool 3D effects. It’s a little strange seeing the European cultists from RE 4 and the African Majini from RE 5 hanging out together, but the assortment of weapons puts them all down nice and easy, just the same. There aren’t a whole lot of settings or levels and I think it’s quite disappointing that there isn’t more material from the best game in the franchise (that would be number four, of course), but I can not say that I didn’t have a good time with this title despite the fact that it hardly showcases the property’s best aspects.

In a way, a Resident Evil action game is kind of like an all-ballads Slayer record. It’s just not what it’s best at. RE has always been sluggish, plodding, and really geared more to atmosphere, adventure-puzzling, and inventory management than fleet-footed gun battles- regardless of what the developers of RE 5 believed. Despite being able to move and shoot this time out, the game still retains that lack of mobility which I think is actually essential to the survival horror genre. Even though it’s without narrative context, there are still plenty of visceral instances where Jill Valentine will be cornered, herbless and holding a dry shotgun and realizing that she’s going to have to knife her way out. Or she can awkwardly run, clutching her stomach.

Levels are timed. Some require you to kill everything that moves while others let you keep rolling through waves of enemies as long as you can keep extending the clock with combos, items, and melee attacks. Occasionally there’s a boss or one-hit killers like the dreaded bagheads, but usually you’re gunning down not-zombies ad infinitum. If it gets lonely, there’s local and online co-op. The online functionality is good- I’ve had a couple of really fun games with strangers and some of the higher levels are damnably difficult without another player along for the ride.

Unfortunately, where it all goes south doesn’t really have anything to do with the game. It’s in how it’s packaged. As an added bonus in a full, numbered Resident Evil installment, Mercenaries was a fun diversion, full of fan service and that cool RE vibe. As a $40 standalone retail title, there isn’t enough variety, content, or value here to justify its price regardless of how much fun I had with it. This is a game that I would absolutely recommend as a ten dollar download on PSN or XBLA or even as a five dollar one on the App Store. But for the same cost as Ocarina of Time, what you’re getting are a very small number of different level types with not really all that many enemy types and eight characters to play with. There aren’t any alternative game modes or objectives- shoot the place up, unlock stuff, and do it again but better next time to get the SS ranking and the high score.

Five years ago, this kind of game would have been more acceptable as a retail title on a portable game platform. But the market and value expectations have changed dramatically, and now it’s just not enough. Had Capcom made this a more comprehensive game that spans the entire RE canon with tons of characters, lots of enemy types and areas from every game, and provided more fan-oriented material than a three minute long demo of next year’s Resident Evil: Revelations, then this might have been a $40 title. As it stands, my recommendation is to ignore the “one playthrough only” scare and pick this one up second hand for half its sticker price or less.

Current Social Games Are Not Fun

That’s not me talking. Well, not directly, anyway.

That’s from Richard Bartle, the man who helped invent the MUD and basically started, albeit via text, this whole MMO thing. I played a MUD in college (Tsunami MUD) when I “worked” at a computer lab and became hooked. Graphics based MMOs never came close to the MUD feeling for me but that’s a story for another time.

Bartlel is taking aim a “social” games which he says are really social at all.

“The big thing about social games that they don’t like to tell you, is they’re not actually social. Games played on social network sites is what we mean by social games … These games are categorized more by the platform than that they are social themselves.”

“The way they engage their players is not through interesting gameplay, it’s done through extrinsic rewards – basically bribes. These are badges, pats on the back, and so forth. I’m level two! That person over there, who started playing five minutes ago, is level one! I’m better!”

Preach it, brother.

If you like like a little developer rage on your Fridays, read the entire piece at Gamasutra.

XCOM Preview at RPS

The fine folks at Rock, Paper, Shotgun have tossed up a preview of XCOM, which after reading it sounds like much of the same demo saw at E3. Maybe a tad more detailed, hard to say, really.

I still think it’s odd that the designers are still tinkering with ideas after the game has been in development this long and after reading this preview I get the notion that RPS doesn’t quite know what to make of it either.

As for NHS, we’re on the fence. Both Todd and I are old school X-Com fans from back in the day and I’m still very leery of this game; Todd is totally on board and Brandon just likes to shoot stuff.

As the preview says in its conclusion:

Here’s hoping…

BioShock Infinite E3 Demo (Well, sort of)

If you want to see the full 15 minute E3 demo for Infinite, well, you’ll have to wait until July 7th. If you want to see the first two minutes of said demo (in other words the stuff before it gets really good) then today is your day!

Spike TV special premiere for a 15 minute E3 presentation? Great press for Irrational and 2K.

But man…that’s weird.

Disney Closes Doors on Split/Second Developer

Really hate these stories.

Disney today confirmed to Develop that the publisher is closing the doors on Black Rock, the developer of both Pure and Split/Second, both games while critically successful failed to do much at the cash register.

The Disney statement: “Disney Interactive Studios confirms that Black Rock Studios’ current project has not been greenlit for further development, consequently the company informed employees yesterday of the intent to enter a consultation process on the proposal to close the studios.”

Black Rock has fired back, however. Again Develop has the goods on this story where two Black Rock employees state that the new game pitch was merely lip service and that Disney knew the axe was falling at the start of the year.

This bit from the story says a lot, I think.

By the time Christmas 2010 came around, Disney had pushed online and social gaming to the top of the agenda – the US HQ bought Facebook game firm Playdom and bumped its CEO John Pleasants up to Disney Interactive boss, pushing out former head Graham Hopper. Then Disney went about trimming its console business….

In this business the critical reception usually doesn’t matter. Still, the 360 version of Split Second supposedly sold around 500,000 units so it’s not like no one bought the game and with the overall critical praise…a damn shame Disney kicked the developer to the curb.

Media Molecule Says Goodbye to Littlebigplanet

UK developer Media Molecule confirmed today that the company is taking a break from developing future LBP games. Siobhan Reddy made the statement at Barcelona’s GameLab 2011 event:

“We’re stepping away from LittleBigPlanet to focus on some new ideas.”

What this means for the future of the franchise is unclear, but the Sony Cambridge studio developed the PSP version and the sweet looking Vita version is being developed by both Double11 and Tarsier Studios so I doubt this marks the end of the franchise. That said, LBP and LBP2 have taken on a life of their own with all of the user made content available. So maybe it’s not a bad idea for the company to branch out into something different.

Mass Effect: What Went Right and What Went South

Wired has a preview/interview with producer Jesse Houston on ME3 and the history of the series and the lessons the company has learned over the years of developing the franchise.

It’s not too long and is worth a read.

“We learned a lot about the way story flow should work” from Dragon Age 2, Houston said. “I don’t want to go into too many details, but ultimately, we’ve listened to the fans in a big way: We’re taking it very, very seriously and we’re committed to making sure we don’t repeat mistakes.”

Don't Shoot the Food – Hunted Demon's Forge Edition

No High Scores

Since returning from vacation, I’ve been playing a lot of Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. It’s a co-op game, but I’m playing it single player as my limited co-op experience with Bill and my extensive single player experience has led me to believe that the game would kind of suck in co-op. Well, if you were playing Caddoc, the big, burly melee guy. Then again, the entire game sucks as Caddoc, so it’s not much of a stretch to think co-op would suck with him as well as it would have the added suckitude of pissing off your partner because you keep dying. At least that’s how it would go for me.

The problem, as I see it (and don’t worry, we’ll get to the food soon enough) is that Caddoc doesn’t pull his weight in co-op. He’s melee, so he should be drawing the aggro off of the archer lady, and he does, but he’s also a bit of wuss and it doesn’t take much to kill him. Oh sure, blocking is key, but when you’re mobbed, shields only work for the beasties in front of you. The rest of them can get at you quite nicely, and when they get into their four swing attack animations, you can get killed fairly quickly. Caddoc doesn’t have the same area of effect spells that E’lara does, so when he gets mobbed, he’s limited in how he can deal with him. Based on this, you would think that the best way would be for Caddoc to deal with the up close guys while E’lara helps him out with her magical arrows when things get too crazy. You would be right except for the fact that while Caddoc is getting mobbed, E’lara usually is too so she has her own problems to deal with. The other, common scenario is that while Caddoc is being mobbed, a gaggle of archers are perforating both of you, requiring E’lara to turn her magic elsewhere…

The revive system in this game certainly doesn’t help matters. Caddoc and E’lara can each carry vials that can revive their fallen teammates. As you progress through the game you’ll be given a higher capacity for vials based on how much you revive one another. Limiting the number of times you can revive your partner is, to put it bluntly, an extremely stupid decision. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a risk/reward system in place for revivals, but in this case, if you revive your partner and then don’t find another vial, you’re essentially penalized for reviving them, or they’re penalized for being downed, and it seems a tad bit harsh. In Gears of War, you had to balance your ability to get to your partner and revive them with the current engagement. Yeah, he may be bleeding out, but if you don’t deal with some more of these dudes, you won’t be able to get there any way. In Borderlands, the downed player has the ability to revive themselves if they can somehow shoot through the darkening vision and kill someone. In Halo, if you die, at least one person in the squad has to survive until you can come back. All of these games offer some seriously tense moments around a partner’s death or downing, but none of them seem like they’re penalizing you for dying. Hunted seems like it’s penalizing you, and maybe that’s the point, but if you’re looking to play a fun night of co-op monster slaying, there’s no need to engender animosity between the players due to a cruddy revive system. The fact that the vials you pick up have to be actively picked up, as opposed to health and mana potions that you pick up automatically makes the system seem even more punishing. In the heat of battle, if I run out of vials, I know not only have to be on the lookout for them on the battlefield, but also looking at the on-screen prompt to make sure I’m not stopping to pick up gold instead of revive vials while my partner bleeds out.

So, with this in mind, it got me thinking to food and how really good dishes can use different textures and flavors to play off of each other to a harmonious end, just as good co-op games can use the different play styles of the players to good ends, even within the restrictions of the game. A couple of months ago I found a recipe for a paella that uses soy chorizo and edamame in it. I’m not a big paella fan as the traditional dish has a lot of shellfish in it, and I don’t dig on shellfish, but this seemed like a winner. The only problem I could see was that it would combine the softness of rice with the crunch of soybeans and my wife is not a big fan of mixing textures within dishes. I can sort of understand that as mouth feel is a big deal for me, but I thought it would be worth it. In the end, we both loved it and my son inhaled it as if he had been in the desert for a month. My only complaint is that having the bell pepper in the mix the entire time the rice is cooking makes it too soft and I’d rather put it in with the edamame at the end. Then again, maybe that would raise the crunch factor too much, so who knows. Bottom line is that this is a great dish, full of flavor and with some really different but complimentary textures that play off each other wonderfully, like a good co-op game in your mouth. Best of all, no one has to be Caddoc.

Paella with Soy Chorizo and Edamame – Cooking Light

1. 6 oz soy chorizo – I made this with real chorizo and it was to die for. Obviously, I’m not advocating you break your moral or religious code for pork, but dayum.
2. 2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
3. 2 1/4 cups chopped yellow onion – sure it says yellow, but feel free to use frozen onion if time is an issue.
4. 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed – OK< saffron is very expensive, at least it is when you buy it at Kroger. Maybe you can get saffron for less at ethnic markets, but I haven't checked. You've been warned.
5. 4 garlic cloves, minced
6. 1 cup Valencia or other medium-grain rice
7. 1 cup (1/2-inch) pieces red bell pepper - use whatever kind of bell pepper you want, but red is nice and colorful. I think I used orange. I'm crazy that way.
8. 1/2 cup dry white wine
9. 2 cups organic vegetable broth
10. 1/4 teaspoon salt
11. 1 1/2 cups frozen shelled edamame, thawed
12. 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
13. 1/4 cup chopped green onions

Cooking Steps
1. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chorizo and cook until browned. I don’t know how soy chorizo is, but the coloring of the “real” stuff makes it hard to tell when it’s brown. Shoot for around ten minutes or so. Make sure it’s all crumbled up by the time it’s done. Once done, remove it from the pan and set aside.
2. Return pan to medium heat. Add the oil, swirl the pan to get even coverage with the oil and the add the onion, cooking for ten minutes.
3. Add the saffron threads and garlic and stir constantly for a minute.
4. Add the rice and bell pepper and cook for two minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Add the white wine and cook for two minutes or until the liquid is almost gone, stirring frequently.
6. Add the vegetable broth and salt and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed. It’s ok if the rice is a little wet, you just don’t want soup.
7. Return the chorizo to the pan and stir in the edamame. Cook for five minutes or until everything is fully heated. Sprinkle on the parsley and green onions and dinner is served.

Still hungry? Check out the Don’t Shoot the Food archive.