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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.

Bioshock: Listening to Rapture

Splicers - the main enemies in Bioshock - have extraordinarily complex and believable vocal sound routines

When I got my 360, with all the enormous catalogue of quality games I could have chosen from to catch up on, the one I picked first was Bioshock. It came top of the list because I was intrigued by the premise behind the game, the lure of a traditional shooter with horror elements in such an esoteric setting. Plus, it was cheap on the used market.

Three chapters in, I have been somewhat disappointed. Bioshock is fun. In fact Bioshock is pretty much everything I was hoping it would be. But the respawn model has really spoiled it for me. Once I realised that there was pretty much zero penalty to dying, other than a short walk back to where you were before, and that you could effectively kill most things in the game by repeatedly hitting them with the wrench, the very first weapon you got, all the challenge and some of the interest drained out of the game. I have a full wallet because buying stuff is pointless: just use the wrench. I’m perplexed how such an awful design choice made it into what should have been an excellent game. Yes, you *could* refuse to use them, and rely on saves but why bother? Plus some of the nasties in the game – Big Daddies in particular – look pretty much unbeatable in a one-off fight with the early game weapons and ammo alone, so re-spawning looks kind of built into the play. The location of re-spawn booths close to difficult fights would tend to confirm that hypothesis.

But I’m going to keep playing anyway, because the story behind the game in indeed interesting, and the setting is indeed esoteric. It also seems to make some explicitly political points, a rarity in games design nowadays. And it helps that so much love has been lavished on the visual design of the game. It didn’t give me the wow factor that I’d been craving, but it was fantastic to see how well unified the visual elements are, everything at once suggestive both of setting in time and place. The horror elements work well too, shadows looming on the walls, lights flickering on and off at appropriate junctures.

But what really got me was the sound design.

Other than soundtracks, I don’t think I’ve ever been specifically impressed by sound design in a game before, but the way it’s used in Bioshock is astonishing. For starters, there’s the ambient background noise of clanking pipes and hissing steam that hovers of the edge of your hearing like an irritating mosquito, simultaneously setting the scene and keeping you jumpy. Then there’s the use of music: no consistent soundtrack, just bursts of sudden discordant piano or saxophone music when you least expect it, often for no particular reason than to make you nervous.

The crowning glory though is the voices. The way Little Sisters chat away to their hulking guardians, just like over-keen toddlers blathering on at a doting parent is unsettlingly bizarre, although you do wonder why the Daddies are always called Mister Bubbles. The sudden voices over the PA system, reminding you that this was once a functioning society with laws and customs all its own. And the set pieces with the Splicers gibbering away to one another or to themselves, featuring clever scripting and excellent voice acting to sound convincingly, disturbingly, insane.

But what really gets me is the triggered vocalisations in real time play. I can’t remember another game in which the enemies actually talk to one another. In most games, of course, you’re hunting aliens or monsters or some such, and they can’t speak in a manner you understand. Some do talk, like the various adversaries in Halo for instance, but they utter repetitive phrases keyed in to your actions. In Bioshock the Splicers talk to you, and they talk to each other, and they talk apparently for the sake of hearing their own voices. The resulting conversations manage to avoid excessive repetition and actually make some sort of coherent sense, giving you a peculiar sense that these were once real live people in a real live place who’ve been driven over the edge, simultaneously creating unease and sympathy in the player.

That sense adds enormously to the already powerful feeling of immersion you get while playing. So it’s doubly tragic then that the designers chose to destroy the sensation of disbelief by creating a ludicrous re-spawn model.

Trials Evolution Review

Trials Evolution: part physics puzzle, part platformer, part racer, all thrills and excitement

When I was a lad, there was a popular TV show called Kick Start in which teenagers on lightweight motorbikes sedately attempted to balance themselves on narrow beams, or haul their bike over burnt-out cars without falling off. That’s the sort of thing I was expecting when I downloaded Trials Evolution from XBLA. It is categorically not what I got.

What I got was the lunatic bastard lovechild of a threesome between a physics puzzler, a platform game and a motorbike racer in which you guide a hapless avatar through a series of improbable courses featuring high bridges and steep cliffs, while falling off as little as possible. You have only to worry about your speed and balancing your rider backwards and forwards: the game takes care of steering for you, making it incredibly easy to pick up and play. And given the ridiculous physics model the game employs, which can see you jumping enormous chasms before making a perfect landing on a girder the width of a drinking straw, it offers a quite amazingly intuitive learning curve to complement those simple controls.

And a good job too because in most other respects the game is chronically unforgiving. The difficulty curve is pretty smooth but reaches the same unbelievable heights as some of the jumps in the later stages of the game. Not that you should worry about this if you don’t like tough games, as it has a medal system and to get the basic bronze level you can take as many tries at a track as you like and most are liberally peppered with restart points. Even the least able players should be able to unlock pretty much everything in the game just by accumulating bronzes. If you want challenge, gun for silvers. If you’re a masochist, shaking desperately with the need for a truly punishing session of self-brutalisation then gold is probably your thing.

But you could find all this out from any review of trials evolution. Most of them seem to miss the point about the game, which is simply this: what makes the game special is not the intuitive, quick-fix game play. Nor is it the nicely graded but ultimately jaw-shattering difficulty. Nor is it the clever genre-busting design. No. What makes this games special is the incredible, visceral thrill you’ll get by shimmying a feeble little dirt bike up to the edge of a cliff, pausing briefly to admire the view across the distant plains beyond before hitting the accelerator and plummeting several hundred feet at sickening speed, rolling perfectly down then up a ramp, tilting the balance to spin the bike as you leap before the back tyre grips dirt again and you tear off, spraying mud, across the uneven surface toward the next set of insurmountable obstacles.

The Castle level in Trials Evolution, one of several downright bizarre settings the game has to offer

The designers knew this. You can see it in every inch of every level design with their jaw-dropping backgrounds, insane obstacles and choice of settings which includes war zones, high-rise building sites and non-euclidean nightmare dimensions. You can see it in the way the game scripts explosions, geysers, even artillery in unlikely places, some miraculously missing you by inches, others an integral part of the game play as they boost your jumps and turns. You can see it in the massive slopes down which you career on a tiny bike at unforgiving speeds. It’s a game that made me beam with sheer joy at the impossible thrills on offer, even as it bludgeoned me repeatedly with the blunt instrument of its difficulty. The game even kills your tiny avatar in a different way at the end of each short course, just to make sure there’s no letup in the entertainment on offer.

The trouble with a lot of XBLA downloadable games is that whilst many are very good and very daring, they’re also very short. Comes with the territory of small developer teams, I guess. This is not, however, a criticism you can level at Trials Evolution. The basic single-player game will probably clock in at the five hours or so that’s fairly typical for an XBLA title but once you’re done with it, it’s not the end of the game. For starters there are multi-player modes that allow you to race in real-time against other players on the same console or Xbox live, using ghosts to track the progress of each player to make sure there’s no wheel-bumping to add further problems to the already tough courses on offer. And if that’s not sufficient there’s a track editor for you to design your own courses and, perhaps more importantly for those of us without time to burn, the ability to download other people’s courses. I’m pretty confident that this setup will allow the game to keep on throwing down its challenges for you for as long as you’re happy to accept them.

Trials Evolution is perhaps the most perfect example of bite-sized entertainment I have ever seen, something that offers an equal amount of pleasure for five minutes or five hours as the mood seizes you. But, don’t be mistaken, bite-sized entertainment is precisely what this is. There’s no story or career mode to engage you or, for that matter, to distract you from the core experience the game offers. You’ll accumulate money you can use to buy pointless cosmetic upgrades but after briefly noodling with your riders’ appearance you’ll cease to care. And there is the inescapable whiff of offering empty rewards to encourage equally empty box-checking replays in the medal and achievements system. That’s the flaw: the game would perhaps have benefited a little for a better and more engaging overarching framework to the design. But what it’s designed to do, it does extremely well indeed.

Four stupid things I learned from owning an Xbox 360

My Xbox 360 hasn't done this to me so far, but here's some things it has done ...

Over the weekend, I became the proud owner of an aged but functional Xbox 360 Arcade with an attached 20GB hard drive. It didn’t come with any games though, and it being a bank holiday weekend here in the UK all the used games shops were closed, so I had to resort to XBLA to get my first taste of gaming goodness. Going to hit the charity shops with a vengeance this lunchtime though. But here’s a short list of unexpected things that I discovered as a used console owner.

1. GamerTag profiles are stupid

Being enthusiastic, I made the gross error of setting up my XBLA account *before* I set up the console. It then took me half an hour to actually sign on to Xbox live, because every time I tried to enter my email and password, the machine told me those details were already matched to an existing GamerTag. I tried changing my profile name, deleting the old profiles on the machine, searching the online help and menus, each and every time having to tediously re-enter my long email address and password without a keyboard all to no avail until I discovered, quite by chance, that if you already have a profile you have to download it first. Am I the only person who found this “feature” to be idiotically well-hidden?

2. Microsoft Points are stupid

As I said I had to get my first games from XBLA. There were three that interested me: Braid, Limbo and Trials Evolution which would come to a grand total of 3200 “points” if I wanted them all. Can I buy 3200 point? Not if I want to get a discount on RRP and buy them in blocks from cards, no. This is so screamingly, obviously a ploy to force people to overspend and then use the excess to engage with other parts of the Microsoft shop to buy mp3’s and such that I’m amazed there hasn’t been more of an outcry about it. I think it’s absolutely disgusting and I’ll be doing my damnedest to try and make up round numbers from promotions and freebies where I can find them. Although I note that the Bing Rewards scheme is arbitrarily only available in the US and therefore closed to me, so way to go to alienate a substantial chunk of your user base, Microsoft. Also, I found it extraordinary that the critically acclaimed Braid, an XBLA game from 2008 will cost me approximately £8 in points, whereas the copy of the critically acclaimed Fallout 3 from 2008 that I secured on Ebay cost me £4 including P&P. No bloody wonder manufacturers are keen to squash the second hand games market: this isn’t just about stopping used sales, it’s about encouraging downloads and locking down the means of distribution at which point you have an effective monopoly and can charge what the hell you like.

3. My TV is stupid

I still have an old cathode ray set. I have never seen the point of HDTV: I have friends that have it, and I’ve seen it demoed in shops and it really hasn’t looked all that much better than SDTV to me, especially when you factor in that the vast majority of broadcasts in the UK are still in SD and that they look marginally inferior when viewed on an HD set due to having to be processed through scaling software. As far as consoles go I stupidly thought the same would apply, especially since I’ve seen adverts for games on the TV that looked okay. But the minute I loaded up a game to play, I could see what the problem was: horrible fuzzy edges everywhere. I’m perplexed as to why I perceive this problem so much more in computer graphics than actual TV transmissions but for now I’m just encouraging my kids to throw heavy objects at the screen in the hope the insurance will cover a new one.

4. Consoles are stupidly effective money sinks

I picked this console up because it was a bargain. And then promptly spent £30 on XBLA points and used games from Ebay, and that barely scratches the surface of what I want to play. Now I’m thinking I need a new memory stick and a bigger hard drive. And I’m tempted to buy The Witcher 2 even though it’s new and can only be had for near full price because it sounds awesome. My six-year old daughter would absolutely love Kinect. Oh, and Brandon told me about this handy-sounding recharge kit for the controllers. And at some point someone is going to challenge me to some online gaming and then I’ll need to upgrade to Gold. So I’ve gone from from trying to economise to spending tons of money, all because I managed to pick up a bargain. How the hell does that work?

So that’s my weekend in a nutshell. The first game I spent those points on is Trials Evolution – might post a review next week as it hasn’t had much coverage round here, and it’s totally not what I was expecting when I downloaded it.