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Dragon’s Dogma in Review

Had Dragon’s Dogma presented itself as a Japanese-style action game with light RPG trappings, I might be writing today about one of my favorite games of 2012. With a development team including alumni from some of the better Resident Evil and Devil May Cry titles, it’s a game with a great pedigree and huge ambition. Brilliant ideas abound like the Pawn concept, which essentially simulates playing a MMORPG asynchronously with vaguely intelligent party members that learn how to fight more effectively over time and speak incessantly in a faux archaic patois. If your main Pawn gets hired by another player, he or she comes back with items or knowledge about quests or how to deal with certain monsters. There’s an excellent item enhancement system that’s as streamlined and straightforward as any I’ve seen, there are well-designed dungeons rich with atmosphere, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting video game moment than scaling a hydra wound around a watchtower to lop off its head.

But it’s not exactly a Japanese-style action game, although elements are present. Despite offering some singular, possibly innovative hack-and-slash RPG concepts Dragon’s Dogma makes the mistake of thinking that it can compete with Western RPGs like Skyrim. It’s a shame because this is a far better and more compelling title in terms of action and gameplay than Bethesda’s OCD morass of enervating sidequests and unfocused narrative. Yet here is a Japanese-developed game that trucks in the worst qualities of the open world genre. The story, such as it is, is almost completely an afterthought and the world-building offers little more than a bland pastiche of Western fantasy tropes. NPCs are little more than Westworld-like automatons, standing by patiently for you to interact with them in their lifeless world. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you stand on a rock outcropping overlooking a vast valley and you can see bandits literally standing around doing nothing.

The world of Gransys is empty and soulless to the point where it makes Kingdoms of Amalur’s setting look inspired. Vast areas of nothing, tediously coupled with no fast travel option in the early game, mean lots of walking and wishing that there was something- anything- to fight or do. The quest log tracks laughable you-gotta-be-kidding-me gigs like finding flowers, killing X number of rabbits, and escort missions.  The story missions have no more urgency or dramaturgy than menial, void-filling tasks issued by question mark-haloed quest dispensers, urging you to the next spot marked on the map- if you can find it before you tire of lumbering around the map looking for a route. As for the narrative line, after twenty hours of play I’ve got that a dragon ate my heart and that’s irritating the local royalty and that’s about it.  There’s probably something about a prophecy in there somewhere, and your character is called the Arisen- as if any of that matters when the game is at its worst when it’s pretending that it has a story to tell or game world to express.

Yet in its best moments, most of which have nothing to do with the paltry narrative or sandbox aspirations, the game celebrates its Eastern lineage. The patrimony of the Souls games is evident in its sometimes staggering difficulty and its willingness to punish the unprepared, hasty, or unskilled player. Fighting some of the larger Monster Hunter-like beasts in the game- Chimeras, Hydras, Gryphons, Cyclopses- is grueling, awe-inspiring, and you can climb on them to hit weak points a la Shadow of the Colossus. Fussy details abound like worrying about keeping your lantern dry, food in your inventory from spoiling, and a Giant from seeing the women in your party. The ladies drive him crazy.

And oh, that fighting. Eschewing the sludgy tank battles of the Bethesda titles, the ersatz Gears of War pop-and-shoot of Mass Effect, and the ever-present MMORPG cooldown ability trope, the combat system is brutal, complex, and completely successful. It’s not tactical or measure like in the Souls or Witcher games. It’s much closer to the Japanese brawler idiom and it’s a better game for it- there’s combos, juggling, charge attacks, and more. Swinging a sword, slinging a spell, or blasting a goblin with ten flaming arrows is completely satisfying and all actions are tied to stamina, weight, speed, strength, and other traits. Classes, abilities, and specializations are strict- the trend toward characters that can do whatever in the name of accessibility is here refuted.

The idea is that you’ll hire, fire, and rehire Pawns by either entering “The Rift” at Rift stones or by running across them wandering the game world to suit your current needs and to augment your character’s abilities. You might run an all-Fighter/Warrior party to handle conventional foes, or recruit a team of Striders and Rangers for some long-distance bow-work backed with up-close dagger-work. Of course, without a supply of curative herbs and potions you’ll want to bring mages to provide healing and combat support. The AI isn’t terrible and the abstract simulation of learning works, I just wish that they wouldn’t constantly remind you to cut off a Saurian’s tail first once they figure it out.

Too often, these chatterbox Pawns ruin the game’s moments of sensory grace with their unasked for advice or commentary. And there are wonderful moments where the game is immersive. Before you go hacking the tails off of those Saurians, you might stop for a minute to admire the vista, with the alligator-men sunning themselves on the rocks in a creek. Or a swarm of bats might explode up a shaft circumferenced by a massive spiral stairway, leading to a horrible Thing in the Pit-style creature. Castles are imposing, the flicker of a lantern feels warm, and the sound of the clash of arms is impactful. This is a very well made, good-looking game with an art style that is more Elmore and Hildebrandt than Blizzard and Games Workshop. Framerates aren’t always the best and the camera, of course, goes haywire when you clamber onto a gryphon, but technically this a very polished, mostly well-appointed game that a lot of care and attention went into.

But the problem with this sometimes brilliant, utterly hardcore, and relentlessly clumsy trainwreck of a game is much the same as we’ve seen with any number of Japanese-developed games where the creators stray from the unique qualities of their national design idioms. Attempting to emulate the successes of Western designers is a tragic mistake. When this game looks, feels, plays, and even sounds like a classic, AAA-class Japanese title I’m loving it. When it’s trying to be an Elder Scrolls game, befuddling me with labyrinthine menus, or constantly reminding me with pop-up messages that I can buy more quests or special weapons through DLC I’m hating it. I don’t recall another game in recent years where my opinion has swung so wildly, often within a single hour of playing it. I do like this game, and quite a lot sometimes. But not always. It’s the dilemma of Dragon’s Dogma, a game that too often turns away from its own strengths and character in pursuit of elusive and unlikely foreign success.

Racing into Reality

Gran Tourismo 5 - apparently realistic enough to allow talented players to make the switch to actual real-life racing

A small thing, this, but I’ve been entertaining a suspicion that stuff like this would start to happen sooner or later for quite some time now. And since it’s from the UK press I thought you might well have missed it across the Atlantic: a twentysomething Grand Turismo addict has used his obsession to actually make the cut as a real life racing driver.

I’m rubbish at racing games, although I greatly enjoy trying to pretend otherwise. I imagine even Mr. Barnes could probably beat me in a race. But one title I’ve never, ever been able to get to grips with is Gran Turismo. I wanted to like it. I could see the charm, the wonderment waiting under the hood for those able to master rear-wheel drive cars, running the racing line and who understood whatever the hell it is that a carburettor does. But I was not one of those chosen few and I eventually gave up the franchise in favour of the rather more user friendly Project Gotham games. I got the feeling then that Gran Turismo was close to a proper simulator, something for the hard-core, a version of Microsoft Flight Simulator for petrolheads and so it was okay for me to utterly rubbish at it, as most people are utterly rubbish at flight sims. This article makes me feel vindicated.

But more interestingly it goes to show just how incredibly realistic home video games have become. Whilst I’ve been waiting to see news reports just like this, I still find it incredible that, as the article points out, running a computer game gives the player enough skill to compensate for the incredibly important things it misses out like real G-force, real car judder and – most importantly of all – the real chance that you might crash and die horribly in an enormous fireball. What does that tell us, I wonder, about computer games and in fact about the sorts of people that play them?

Journey in Review

Last night I played through thatgamecompany’s Journey, now available on PSN. I played it from start to finish, which took about two hours. It may be two of the most important hours of video gaming I’ve ever done. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat through the end credits of a game feeling as if what I had just played was as much inside me as it was on the screen, and that something had changed in myself and also in the video game ether. I do know that I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game as eloquent in expressing an abstract concept of humanity and the rich fabric of emotion, experience, and relationships that define us.

Journey is both a critical dream come true and the game writer’s worst nightmare. It’s exactly the kind of argument for “games can be art” that I’m always looking for, a sophisticated and transcendental usage of video game grammar, metaphor, and structure rather unlike anything else before it. But it’s also hard to discuss without veering into the kind of soft-headed, doe-eyed hyperbole that undermines rigid analysis. And then there’s the issue of how magnificently subjective the entire experience of playing the game is. I’ve read several reviews, and although all have given the game high praise, most feel futile in the wake of this game’s passing. I’m sure mine will too.

How do you write about a game that is more about meditation, introspection, and self-discovery than shooting the core or saving the world? How do you quantify a game that describes- with stunning minimalism- concepts like the development of language and the ascension of matter into spirit? Why do terms like “replayability” and “linearity” matter at all in a game that touches on love, loss, elation, discovery, curiosity, creativity, fear, compassion, competition, loss of faith, loneliness, courage, and death?

The usual game criticism vocabulary falls apart. The grammar fails. Because this game, although it is a video game, is something else.

There is a story. You control a nameless pilgrim travelling across a desert to reach a pillar of light emanating from a mountain. That’s really all you need to know, and arguably it’s all you should know. In case you’re worried, there is a jump button.

There is also a button for speaking. Or singing. Or laughing. Or screaming. It’s your choice. The reason it’s there is because eventually, you will come across another pilgrim that will accompany you. It’s another player, although you don’t know who they really are. And you can’t speak to them except through this one button and what you do in the game.

On my journey, I went through an amazing range of emotions, many tied to my companion. When he (or she) would be away, I would feel sad and look for them, pressing the button to see if they’d respond. When they did, it was a huge relief. We worked on some of the game’s cryptic, simple puzzles together. We celebrated when we made it through an area. We laughed as we slid through the desert through crumbling gates left behind by unknown builders. We hid together from a giant dragon made of cloth.

But his scarf was longer than mine, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I wanted mine to be like his. When we were close, we replenished each other’s energy. I can’t help but think that maybe the other felt like they were taking care of me, sharing his wealth, knowledge, experience, and energy.

Eventually, at the very end, I lost my companion during a dizzyingly ecstatic sequence that’s best left for you to discover. Walking into the final section of the game, I was alone. I felt guilty about going on without my companion. Was I so caught up in my ecstasy that I neglected the person who walked with me all of this time? I stood on a cliff, pressing that button to see if they would answer back. They didn’t. I moved on.

That a video game- particularly an extremely simple, abstract, and threadbare design- is able to evidence such meaningful emotion and such internal dialogue is astonishing. This is not about facile, immature emotional beats like the death of Aeris or a Call of Duty nuke. These are instances of almost complete emotional surrender and reflection that resonate deep within the soul, catalyzed by a very, very special video game that absolutely deserves the praise it’s receiving.

The few complaints that are out there- too short, too linear, too simple, too expensive- are pointless bleatings from people who may be expecting the wrong things out of Journey. In my opinion, they’re not expecting enough. Because this game is one of the few that can totally deliver on the premise of games as art and the potential of the medium to reach far beyond pulp narratives and macho, blockbuster posturing. It’s like a masterpiece in a gallery full of teenage notebook art.

But there is one tremendous variable in this game’s success or failure as a work. You. What you bring into this game, what you expect it to do as a video game, and how you receive its cues will determine what it means for you- if it means anything at all. Some will not like it, citing a dearth of gameplay or choices. But there is a game here, complete with trophies, secrets, challenges, and even fail states. Others will call it pretentious or boring. They’d be dead wrong.

Journey is an important game to me because it validates almost everything I’ve ever believed about video games as a creative medium. But more than that, for two hours of my life I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so emotionally and spiritually connected to a game. It’s demanding, in a way. I felt exhausted afterwards. When it was over I had intended to play a few levels of Sine Mora for the review next week, but instead I just went to bed and thought about what I had just experienced. It haunts me today, and I think it may very well haunt me forever.

I’m asking myself repeatedly if I’ll ever play it again. I don’t know. The first time was so powerful that I’m afraid of hyper-analyzing its mysteries and internal logic too much. But I want to see what happens with another companion. I want to feel that sense of discovering another on the same quest that I’m pursuing. Maybe I can take on the role of a mentor or guide for a player that hasn’t been through the game yet. Maybe my scarf will be the longer one between us.

Shoot Many Robots in Review

The action is equal parts run-and-gun side scroller and any given co-op horde mode. The art style is Borderlands by way of Team Fortress in a cel-shaded illustration style. The transactions are micro and the humor is gratingly juvenile. The game is Shoot Many Robots, a new downloadable from Demiurge and published by UbiSoft.

It made an immediate bad impression on me with comic elements focused mostly on testicles, drinking beer, and “redneck” stereotypes. Had I known that I could pay real money to “nut up” to an “awkwardly large sack” of the game’s currency, I might have passed on the review code. That said, I also might have passed on it if I had known that it’s yet another game in a negative trend that encourages players to continue spending money on the title through an in-game store to unlock new weapons and equipment rather than earning these through gameplay.

Not that the gameplay is any great shakes to begin with, and actually spending enough time with the game to earn enough “nuts” to buy your way into the game’s plentiful wardrobe options and armory would be quite an endurance test. Essentially, it’s a Contra-style game with four-player co-op and as the title suggests, many robots at which to shoot. There are lots of levels and they’re all star-ranked to encourage you to play through multiple times to grind out your nuts (yep), level up, and unlock the more difficult areas. Most are straight-up fights with tons of robots attacking Walter P. Tugnuts (see?) and his cronies but there are also survival levels that test your ability to withstand the robotic onslaught. One touch that I did really like is that if you survive the wave-based areas, you can keep going into bonus rounds.

The problem is that even if you manage to hold your own by machine gunning, freezing, frying, or exploding the many robots, none of the weapons or funny hats that you can buy alleviate the sheer boredom and repetition of it all. This is a single-minded, completely undynamic game despite light RPG elements and although its keen focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bad thing when you’re an hour deep into it and you realize that you’re a couple of minutes away from going insane if you have to hear the incessant sound of your bullets plinking against robot hulls any longer.

So you’ll run, jump, and occasionally hold down the trigger to plant your feet and train your fire in any direction. Sometimes you’ll stand in one spot and literally just hold the fire button down, watching the conga line of robots dispense damage numbers before expiring. Keep shooting, and a combo meter multiplies the nuts you can earn. Sometimes, a stronger robot will come out and you’ll have to change position since there’s no way to avoid getting hit reliably. Or maybe you’ll use those fancy pants you bought to slide through the onrushing horde, drinking a beer to replenish your health.

Or, maybe you’ll just get bored and doze off, as I did several times during my review period. There was segment in particular where I would nod off and wonder why I kept returning to this one checkpoint. No amount of “quirky” humor, under-delivered promises of over-the-top mayhem, or been-there-done-that gameplay can make up for a game that is simply so uninspired, unoriginal, and flat out dull.

Shoot Many Robots is exactly the kind of mediocre, ne’er-do-well game that could not exist outside of the low-cost, downloadable marketplace. With similar and superlative genre examples like Outland, Vampire Smile, and Hard Corps: Uprising available through the same outlets- not to mention still-in-circulation classics like Gunstar Heroes- I can’t think of a single element upon which this game can make a case for itself.

It’s not a badly made game by any means, though. It’s completely serviceable for what it is and it’s competently produced but that’s about as far as this wagon will roll. I don’t doubt that some players will get some mileage out of its four-player co-op mode either online or on the couch. But here’s a shocker- almost any game is good and fun to play if you’re doing so with your buddies. And this is a review of Shoot Many Robots, not fun with friends.

No High Scores All-or-Nothing Metascore (on a scale of 0 or 100): 0

Operation Raccoon City Gets Nemesis Mode

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City Nemesis Mode

This next trailer is a bit confusing. So, you’re telling me that I get to ‘play as’ a Nemesis or ‘have one’ on my team? As a Resident Evil fan from day-one, there is a HUGE difference.

Oh, and sorry PS3 people. You get the big old shaft this time around, since Nemesis Mode is Xbox 360-exclusive. Who knows, perhaps you’ll get Licker Mode. We all should know by now that Capcom will give each system an exclusive mode, open it up for cross-console sales later, and then make up some lame excuse about how it wasn’t possible at launch.

*Ahem* I’m looking at you Mercenaries Mode. 76KB ‘download’ my butt. Anywho, catch the trailer after the break.

YouTube video