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Archive for March, 2010

A Narrow Escape

March 23rd, 2010 No comments

I’m standing at the edge of the storm drain tunnel, surveying the battleground-to-be. It stinks of sewage. Beside me stands my good friend, A.I. Francis. He’s a scofflaw who plays by no one’s rules; yet he’s always at my side, that big lovable lug. No matter the situation, he stands tall. His words are few, but they always entertain and encourage. A sharpshooter regardless of weapon, he makes quick work of the most menacing threats before I even know they’re taking an interest in me. Cover? He could care less — it’s mine. Yet beneath that brutish exterior lies a caring friend, who sacrifices time and well-being to pull me back to my feet when I’m down for the count.

Also, Curtis and Kai are there.

And “there” is where we stand for the umpteenth time: The Drains, Survival mode, Left 4 Dead. Once again, we prepare to face our inevitable demise at the hands (and feet, and teeth) of the undead. Our only goal: through teamwork, coordination, and selflessness, prolong that foregone conclusion enough to best our previous time. A gold medal awaits us, if we can only crack that 10-minute timer.

Some may see this as pointless: Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Or perhaps this is an exercise in determination: the Latin rebuttal might be “possunt quia posse videntur,” roughly, “they can because they think they can.” Maybe throw in the Browncoats’ “When you can’t run anymore, you crawl, and when you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you” for good measure. Or perhaps digress with Tony Soprano’s “Why don’t you get the hell out of here before I shove your quotations book up your fat fucking ass.”

We all take a deep breath, and think back to our previous round, focusing on making amends for the error that caused our house of cards to tumble. We’ve persevered without the help of any map glitch (i.e., we haven’t found one yet). As each attempt has failed, our tactics have been refined. The Bronze medal time has been beaten. The Silver medal, snatched. We’ve collectively become attuned to the rhythms laid out by the AI Director. We’ve slowly learned the steps to this dance.

Cue the music.

The frantic strings of the orchestra match our movements as our crosshairs dart about, attempting to locate the source of the gargle. It grows louder. A tidal wave of undead thunders towards us. We cut them down with efficiency, merging lines of fire, not panicking as strays trickle by the front line. We fire and reload in shifts, turning our gang of four into a prickly man-of-war. We keep our precious pipe bombs tucked in our belts, knowing we are doing far too well to waste them now.

We’ve learned much since our first confused attempt: we know where to stand, where to fire, and when to fall back together. But soon our pattern breaks. As Hunters pounce, Smokers ensnare and drag, and Boomers vomit pus, we break rank to save each other at the expense of getting clawed, punched, kicked and bitten. This bullets-and-blood orgy climaxes with the arrival of the monstrous Tank. Suddenly, nothing else matters. Our fire converges. If we’re fortunate, not one of us has to take his lumps this time around.

Afterward, there is a brief lull — enough to heal up, reload, reposition — but the next wave is soon upon us. We brace ourselves, between us, one less medkit, a little less health, and a lot less ammo. The horde arrives. A shotgun blast rips off a chunk, but it’s just the outer layer of this rotten gaggle. We work on cutting our way to the core.

Then, somehow, a Boomer sneaks in and spews green paste — Axe cologne for zombies — all over us, even A.I. Francis. Blinded, we stumble backward — the front line collapses. The horde’s numbers multiply, and the counter slowly ticks: fire, sneak in a shell, fire twice, sneak in a shell, fire three times, until, the chamber is empty. We scramble to unholster our pistols. We fire wildly. We desperately swing the butts of our guns, trying to reload.

Then, someone throws a pipe bomb. We are granted 10 seconds of silence.

Bloodied, exhausted, and down to our last few rounds, we try to collect ourselves. But in the end — the way it always ends in Survival mode — we are one by one, torn apart by chipped fingernails and browned teeth. There is no escape from the undead.

But this is not the escape I speak of. What I somehow managed to avoid is both the bane and badge of honour for every so-called “hardcore” gamer: the marathon session.

At this point, we had been playing for more than four hours (child’s play, I know), with a short break somewhere in between (we’re adults, FFS). But Kai, a model of self-restraint, called it quits and left. Since A.I. Francis and now A.I. Bill are always ready to roll, Curtis and I were left, waffling, looking for any excuse to keep playing, and looking for any excuse to stop. After Pong-ing “only if you want to” and “it’s up to you” for a few rounds, I paused to gather the willpower to blurt out the suggestion that we stop, nearly changing my mind mid-sentence.

And there it ended.

A few minutes after walking away from my PC, I felt regret. Why stop a good thing? Even the stoic Kai, who normally signs off with “gg”, instead elatedly parted with "great game". Curtis and I didn’t know if the next session would be this much fun. We could easily have put in another couple of hours. We were were chipping away at that timer, getting a few seconds closer to Gold. We were in the zone.

But seasoned gamers, the ones who know how marathon sessions make them forget their personal responsibilities, health, and hygiene, understand that “in the zone” can morph into a meaningless blanket statement. More often than not, it’s just a delusional explanation for not having showered or eaten in three days.

I believe all gamers can find themselves in the clutches of whichever title they happen to be enjoying. It doesn’t matter if it’s Peggle, Counter-Strike, Animal Crossing, or World of Warcraft. Games are engaging. And anyone who plays has the capacity to suddenly find herself engaged in a marathon session, or ask himself how in the hell “just one more turn” turned into “do I hear birds chirping?” It’s one of many ways of earning your gaming stripes.

However, anyone who’s been through enough marathon sessions has the capacity to learn that the most appropriate metaphor for a finish line is dropping dead. As tough as it may be, knowing when to stop and resume your “other” life is the right choice. That’s one of many ways of earning your gaming stars.

But son of a bitch, we should’ve kept playing.

Late for the Party

March 12th, 2010 No comments

I finally signed up with Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live, two and a half years after its roll-out. Now, it’s a given that Microsoft knows how to throw a party; despite this, I never found myself yearning to line up for GFW Live. To be honest, I never even really knew much about it aside from presumed similarities to Xbox Live (Gamerscore-type stuff), and the Games for Windows branding (Gamerscore-type stuff, but on PC). Well, I recently installed a game that required an account (TimeGate’s Section 8), and was abruptly tossed into the Live arena. I found the initial experience familiar, and funnily, a tad bewildering because of that familiarity.

I’ve been a Steam user since it was rolled out in 2003, and since then, can sum up my firsthand experience with the Xbox Live service with a big fat goose egg. I realize this can create biased expectations on how a gaming service or portal should look, feel, and function. So imagine my surprise to find a lot of overlap between GFW Live and Steam in terms of services and features:

  • Distribution portal — You can use Live’s marketplace to purchase and download first- and third-party games; it also allows you to access patches and additional content. However, extra content doesn’t seem to be free. (Section 8‘s map pack costs points, which you can either earn, or purchase.)
  • DRM — Live-enabled games require you to sign in to play, giving publishers a way to permanently tie their game’s registration key to you via your Gamertag. This makes for far better copy protection than those anti-consumer DRM schemes that limit the number of installations, or stealthily install spyware on your rig. However, I’ve yet to find out, firsthand, whether Live-enabled games can be played offline. It seems that you need to create a “local” Live profile to do this (yes, it’s a local live profile), and none of your in-game accomplishments can be merged with your “online” Live profile. In Steam, I’m pretty sure you can just “disconnect” your singleplayer game and play it offline, which is far more user-centred.
  • Up in the clouds — I first tried to play some of Section 8‘s singleplayer campaign, but was informed that without an established Live connection, none of my progress or settings would be saved. I assume the wall that Microsoft immediately places in front of you will be the same with other Live-enabled games, even those with a stronger singleplayer component. I see the benefits of putting user data in the cloud, but I’m not quite yet a willing participant. It’s nice that Steam offers the option of retaining player settings in its own cloud.

Overall, I don’t think these similarities are a coincidence. Since the v3.2 client I installed was released but a couple of months ago, I looked to see what was rolled out for past releases. Some of the changes showed how strongly this service was evolving from something console-centric to, dare I say, PC-appropriate:

  • Fees? — I spat drink on my screen when I found out GFW Live initially carried subscription fees, not unlike the Xbox Live services. Maybe you can milk those 360 players, who were thrilled to have online gaming in 2005, but it doesn’t surprise me that PC gamers found this preposterous. Microsoft dropped the fees about a year after launch, which roughly maps one month to each of the 12 steps to sanity.
  • UI widgets — Although I’m getting more used to it, my initial impression on the GFW Live overlay is that it seemed chunky: text, surrounded by lots of empty space, on a fat button. I felt like I was at a kiosk at the cineplex, mashing my thumb on an oversized “NO POPCORN THANKS” rectangle. The design felt reminiscent of something optimized for use on a distant TV screen, and easily navigated and activated with a Doritos-grease-stained analogue stick and a fat X button. The thing that scares me is this UI was the result of a revamp to a less console-oriented redesign.
  • Collecting gold coins — As I played a bit of Section 8‘s singleplayer storyline, I’d get the occasional notice that I’ve earned some player pellets. So these are those Gamerpoints I’ve always heard about. You earn them by playing, and you don’t seem to earn many of them. I believe there are people in China do this for a living, except they earn real money to feed their families instead of save up for map packs that should be free. I can see this as one console-style feature (another example being Achievements), that will influence PC gaming instead of vice versa.

At this stage, Live is on a track that IMHO seems pretty typical for a Microsoft product: roll out something that’s underwhelming, refine it by implementing some of the competition’s ideas in a more heavy-handed manner, and eventually, through smart business positioning, become an irresistible force. Now, keep in mind that Steam was a flimsy shell of a portal when it was first rolled out, and remained that way for quite some time. (I think their Friends service was down for what felt like eight months.) But now, seven years later, Steam really feels solid as a platform, complete as a delivery service, and reasonable as a copy-protection scheme. I no longer see it as a hoop I must jump through in order to play Counter-Strike.

I’m sure there’s a similar future for GFW Live. Regardless, it’s clear it started out trying to ham-fistedly transplant the features and UI from their console framework to PC, and have since made modifications or additions to suit this different audience. Because of this, I can’t help but feel like an afterthought compared to my 360-playing counterparts. So while GFW Live will soon continuously run alongside Steam and Xfire on my desktop, I’ll probably find myself a proponent of the games played on the platform, not the platform itself.

Go Go Ubisoft Marketing!!

March 5th, 2010 No comments

Got my kickass newsletter from Ubisoft, trotting out their latest releases! Go Ubisoft marketing!

Ubisoft newsletter

“Become an invicible hero : from the Red West to the Atlantic depths!”

Space-colon-space whut! This almost rhymes, yo! It has rhythm! But wait. What’s that you say? An invicible hero? As in, Assassin’s Creed II “yo, I’m climbing the walls” invisible? Or Assassin’s Creed II “dang you saw me and now I gotta kill you” invincible? Or is this the new way of saying stealthy and unstoppable? NEways…

“Become the ultimate killing machine in No More Heroes 2!”

This isn’t the follow-up to the Wii cult hit that was a balls-out, over-the-top satire that oozed style and substance from every pore, with a sharp script, send-up on otaku, and memorable characters? No. This is where you get to become the ultimate killing machine! Just like Terminator Redemption, but a different game!

[Silent Hunter 5] “Rule the Atlantic! Experience the thrill of the hunt as the captain of U-boot!”

Aww yeah. Now this is what I’ve always wanted: to rule tha mofackin’ Atlantic! I want to be the captain of U-BOOT!!! Wait. Isn’t Silent Hunter a submarine sim? Fuck it! I will crush all those cargo ships as the captain of U-BOOT!!! Chain kills for high score! Own the leaderboard! Power up for infinite torpedoes! After crews abandon ship, you can experience the thrill of running them down with your sub! None of that crocodile tears bullshit from Das Boot — the captain of U-boot brakes for no one!

[The Settlers 7]: “Who will be the best strategist? Create your own kingdom and defeat your opponents in order to extend your territory.”

What, no exclamation point? It’s only a 17-year-old franchise. Maybe their “1” key broke from overuse. Or maybe they had to bring it down a notch, quiet the room down some, to ask us the penultimate question: who will be the best strategist? I am certainly no S-rank tactician, so I’m grateful to learn that I need to A) create my own kingdom, B) defeat my opponents in order to C) extend my territory. I’ve always taken the A) crush your enemies to B) see them driven before you and C) hear the lamentations of their women route. Well you’ve made this game sound sooo interesting. I am sold! Where do I buy?

Coming soon from Ubisoft: Imagine: Copywriter, and Imagine: Proofreader.

Spontaneous Combustion

March 4th, 2010 No comments

So I’ve been playing TimeShift, an FPS that gives you the ability to slow down, stop, and reverse time. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of applications for these abilities beyond kicking ass, but the neat part is finding ways to use time manipulation to mess with your foe’s head, and thinking about how things must be like from his perspective.

Some of it’s scripted in, perfect example being weapon snatching. Upon encountering some poor grunt, you stop time, run up to him, grab his weapon, step back, then resume time. Nine times out of ten, his immediate response is total confusion, followed by some serious grovelling:

On the other hand, some of the results aren’t entirely predetermined, turning the whole playscape into some sort of sicko, carnage sandbox. Stop time, fire an explosive-tipped arrow at a guard, and watch the blast literally rip his skin off his body. You get another precious half second to stare at this Bodyworlds exhibit you’ve just created before time resumes and his carcass breaks into chunky bits. Who’s more sick, the developers for letting this happen, or me for pausing the game to gleefully clap my hands every time this happens?

Then there’s this scenario:

Maybe I have problems, but I just find this funny. You’ve sneaked up on these two guys talking about whatever, paused time, launched a Thunderbolt arrow into the leg of the guy in the gym teacher outfit, then resumed time quickly enough to have him explode in “real” time. Imagine what it would be like being that other guy sitting on the crate.

Now if you re-watch around 0:08 you can really get a feel for his actual reaction: he pauses for half a second, then slowly turns around as though someone has just lightly tapped him on the shoulder. Bro, your friend just exploded for no particular reason! How about you scrape some of his liver off your tongue, tear off your helmet, and scream at the world like Manech in A Very Long Engagement? Maybe a little arm flailing, at least?

Let’s put this in perspective. Have you ever had a watercooler-type conversation with a guy who, mid-sentence, accidentally launched a piece of food that was dislodged from his molars, sending it along a graceful arc that ends by your shoe? Or, heaven forbid, let slip a little gas? Or unintentionally belched during the last word of his sentence? (I do recall one time that actually happened: the word was “zero,” a perfect belching word due to the absence of hard consonants.) All three are worthy conversation stoppers, the kind where at best there is an uncomfortable pause as both parties silently acknowledge what has happened before resuming their chit-chat.

Using these as a baseline, how would you feel if the guy you were talking shop with, complaining about the company benefits plan, or maybe how crap the weather has been lately, suddenly burst into kibble, two feet from you frickin’ face? You think your body language might communicate something a tad more panicked than, “Hey, is someone back there having french fries?”

TimeShift is good times.