Posts belonging to Category Reviews

Initial Impressions: WORLD OF WARCRAFT

Okay, so for someone who was a huge fan of fantasy, role-playing games, WARCRAFT and its sequels, and Blizzard itself, you might’ve thought I’d have jumped on Blizzard’s massively multi-player masterpiece when it was first released.  I did not.  I was deathly afraid of WORLD OF WARCRAFT for all the reasons above.  Knowing my tendencies to  . . . er . . . overly focus on things to the exclusion of all others and my bit of experience playing FINAL FANTASY XI (the online one) and RAGNAROK ONLINE I was certain that WoW would be crack cocaine in digital form.

In the end, I decided it was necessary for me to face the dangers of WoW addiction in order to have some experience with the game.  It is a pivotal piece of gaming and so many people reference things within it (especially when talking about creating other online games) that I had to play it enough to be familiar with it.  With all that being said, let’s get into it!

WORLD OF WARCRAFT is what is known as an MMORPG or massively multi-player role-playing game.  It is set in the fantasy world Blizzard created in their WARCRAFT series of strategy computer games, where humans battle orcs and both sides have allies in other races and fantastic creatures.  The game features several different races on both sides of the two playable alliances: the Alliance and the Horde.  I found myself more attracted to the look of the Alliance characters (the sort of “good” side that has Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes fighting for it), but in the end I put together a tauren (a sort of minatour type race) druid.

The main gameplay consists of walking your character around the fantasy world and destroying creatures.  The former is done with standard keyboard controls or by clicking where you want to go.  The latter is the focus of the game and generally consists of clicking on a creature then attacking it with one or more abilities.  The abilities range from simple damage dealing to effects like holding a creature in place.  Like its predecessors, WoW use monster bashing (with all its dice-rolling glory) as its main mechanic, but the draw is in the growth of the character itself.  There’s a sense of accomplishment felt when your character is strong enough to survive and travel to a new area.  There’s always that next level to gain to see what new monster-overcoming power your character can learn and since it’s an online game and one that supports a massive number of players, you can do adventures with several of your friends at once.  It does become a bit of Dungeons and Dragons without pens, paper, dice, and having to imagine what these creatures, characters, and locations look like.

And in case you’re wondering, I did have a mild obsession with it after my initial hour (which goes by pretty fast, by the way), but I’ve been able to manage my WoW play pretty well.  I think I was right, though, if they’d have had this game when I was in college and I’d gotten it, that would’ve been the end of a lot of my classes!


Ahh, StarCraft.  The original holds a nostalgic place in my heart.  Needless to say I was looking forward to cracking open the newest StarCraft offering from Blizzard,  STARCRAFT II: WINGS OF LIBERTY.  Upon opening it, installing it (on Mac OS X for my version), getting myself set up on, and firing up the first mission I realized a surprising (to me) fact: this game is basically StarCraft HD.  I don’t mean that in a bad way.  In creating their sequel, Blizzard managed to keep it feeling just like the original.  There are, of course, changes — new units, balance changes, a new more fleshed out campaign mode, and a fancy 3D engine — but it still plays, sounds, and feels like STARCRAFT.

The mechanics of both the old and the new STARCRAFT are the same.  The “genre” is real-time strategy (RTS), meaning that players make their strategic and tactical choices whenever they feel it appropriate without having to wait for the other player’s turn to end as they would in a game like Chess or Risk.  The major choices a player faces are what to build (and in what order), what to train, and where to send units (soldiers, ships, and the like).  Though it is a war game, players may not realize that what every match boils down to is resource management (though, this is probably true of real world wars, too).  The major resources are minerals (act as money), gas (a secondary cost to add game variation), and supply (the player’s current limit on units).  One quickly finds that without control of several sources of minerals and gas, and a steady increase in supply, their army is destined to be overrun by an opponent’s who does have control over those resources.

The game is very well balanced across its three different races.  Though I personally found the Zerg to be less beginner-friendly and therefore harder to win with, after some study I found that the successful Zerg player’s whole mentality is different, which I think shows the strength of the design team that they can manage to make three different army styles that actually play differently.  The lazy way would be to simply have different units balanced by moving stats around from unit to unit, but functionally don’t play any differently.  I suppose that’s why Blizzard is considered the Pixar of game developers.

Initial Impressions: KIRBY AIR RIDE

I have a few hours of KIRBY AIR RIDE instead of the usual hour this time.  My little brother was playing with one of his friends and, being that the game allows up to four players, I thought I’d join in to see what they were up to.  KIRBY AIR RIDE is for the GameCube and is made by Nintendo.  There are at least a couple different modes (the main one being a kart-style racing game), but we spent all our time playing the “City Trial.”  City Trial mode is like free-form kart game interspersed with mini-games.  The idea is that Kirby (Nintendo’s adorable pink puff-ball hero) drives/glides around a large city map on various “stars” (vehicles) collecting items.  The stars are all dispersed throughout the city and have (sometimes vastly) different handling characteristics and each use the “boost” button for different effects–some use it to go faster, some can only turn when using the boost button, some drift when boosting, etc.  The items the players are trying to collect affect the stats of their rides.  There are speed up, speed down, handling up, increased HP, and the like.  The concept is to go find a star you’re comfortable piloting then collect as many power up items as possible in the amount of time allowed in the city map.  These stat changes will be used in the mini-game to follow to (hopefully) give you an edge over your opponents.  All the while, your buddies are trying to level up their stars and can even knock power-ups off yours.  The mini games vary from races, to battles, to who can glide the farthest and, when set to random, you never know what the competition at the end of the City Trial you’ll be in and whether you collected the right power-ups for it.

All-in-all, it is surprisingly entertaining (even considering how primitive the graphics look), though it can get rather cutthroat with the item collection (especially with eight- and nine-year olds).  The different stars are fun, and actually do provide enough variety that each player tends to have their favorite and that favorite is often different from someone else’s.  A lot of the rounds I had with my brother and his friends turned into their own games of hide-and-go-seek, destroy all the stars, or any number of emergent game-modes we came up with on our own.  We never did manage to defeat the King DeDeDe battle, though . . . so I’m not so sure about the balance of that one ; )

Initial Impressions: SONIC & KNUCKLES

Perusing my little brothers game collection I ran across Sega’s SONIC MEGA COLLECTION for the GameCube and decided to get my old school game on and play one of the Sonic games I never got around to when I was younger.  I was a Sonic follower when I was little and I had a small collection of the games on the Genesis.  I’d never gotten a chance to play the fourth installment, though, so I was actually kind of excited to finally try out SONIC & KNUCKLES.  (The collection includes SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, its two sequals, SONIC & KNUCKLES, SONIC 3D BLAST, SONIC! SPINBALL, and DR. ROBOTNIK’S MEAN BEAN MACHINE.)

The first SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, in case you haven’t played one of the original Sonic games before (I know, I’m getting old), was built for the SEGA Genesis and was a 2D platformer to compete with the Mario games from Nintendo.  The big sell-point was the amazing speed at which Sonic could traverse his tile-based levels and  the fun roller coaster design that resulted from all that speed.  SONIC & KNUCKLES was the fourth installment of the series and was the final 2D version.  The game plays exactly like its predecessors, though the designers added a couple new abilities for both Sonic, and his new rival, Knuckles.  These abilities allow the designers to create sections of a level that are character-specific, only Knuckles could reach some places with his smashing power.  Basic mechanics included moving and jumping (the basics of a platforming game precedented by SUPER MARIO BROS.) to progress from platform to platform, avoid dangers, and attack enemies.  The Sonic games also added the ability to roll into a spikey spinning ball in order to attack some enemies from the ground.  Springs and loop-de-loops are characteristic of most Sonic levels and spinning gold rings were the collection item of choice.

It was interesting to go back to this game and see how strongly the arcade mentality influenced the design of the game.  The arcade industry was still fairly strong and console designers were constantly chasing arcade-quality.  Generally big successes were games that were big arcade hits and were then ported to the consoles, though with lower quality graphics due to the limitations of the console hardware. Despite (as far as I’m aware) never being an arcade title, SONIC & KNUCKLES still held on to a three lives, no continues philosophy, leading to a very challenging game.  The player has to earn new lives and learn the levels in order to progress to the later stages.  If he fails to get to the end before his life stock has run out, the game is simply over and the player must restart from the beginning.  Game design since has changed to favor helping a player play through and enjoy the game, with automatic saves, infinite “lives” (see my REPUBLIC HEROES post), and a focus on playing levels again after completing them in order to find other bonuses or increase score.  This is in contrast to having to play a level over before completing it due to failure to reach the end and having to learn how best to accomplish the task.

As a side note, I still find it amazing to play a Sonic game on a Nintendo platform.

Initial Impressions: ASSASSIN’S CREED

I didn’t really know what to expect when I finally got around to popping Ubisoft’s ASSASSIN’S CREED into my PS3.  I’d read some stuff from the guys at Penny Arcade a long time ago talking about how at first they didn’t like it, but then they did.  I had friends who were telling me that they got kind of bored of it after a while and my dad said he didn’t like it much because he’d found the combat to be cludgey after getting through games like FALLOUT 3, UNCHARTED, and BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM. Yet, despite all the ho-hum responses, the general consensus in the gaming world seems to be that ASSASSIN’S CREED is a great game and, indeed, it even has two high-profile follow-ups.

The gameplay is a mix of 3D platforming, timing-based combat, and sneaking puzzles.  The main mechanic is the sort of auto-traversing system the developers created for the player in an attempt, I assume, to not only make the controls a little easier and streamlined, but to also make the feeling of running across rooftops much more fluid.  Players simply have to run in the direction they wish to jump and the character will determine on its own the best place to land, whether that be grabbing a pole, landing on a balcony, or even latching on to the side of a wall.  For the most part this works well and does make the menial task of getting from one place to the other much more interesting and dynamic.  The system isn’t perfect, though, as the character will somewhat regularly jump to some other target or miss a jump entirely.  This is most likely due to some amount of ambiguity as to where to land based on where the character started and the direction the player was holding.

Combat is similar to a 3D fighting game like SOUL CALIBUR, but I found after a bit of practice, it amounted to standing around waiting for the enemy’s attack animation to start then hitting the counter-attack button.  This, after a while, made me less and less worried about getting into fights with city guards.  As a matter of fact, that leads me to one of my two biggest design complaints.  In the end all the sneaking around one is supposedly trying to do as an assassin, is made rather voluntary since with the simple counter-attack strategy, even the whole garrison of city guards can be casually taken down.

My second big complaint is the odd choice to make it impossible to do an assassination job without being detected.  It could be my lack of experience with the game (though I have played a number of games prior to this one), but despite setting up a need to gather information on the target before being allowed to take him down, the player is not given an opportunity to make the kill discreetly.  In some instances this is because of story twists where the player is set up and the target knows he’s coming, but in other cases, there simply is no way to get to the target without alerting the city.  I personally find this irritating as the designers had just forced me to do all these repetitive tasks to get the information on how to do the deed correctly.  If I’m not going to be given a chance to take the guy out without being detected, why not just let me roll in, sword swinging, and kill everyone on the way in?  In addition to this is a somewhat absurd paused time after the player makes the killing blow on a target that allows the soon-to-be-deceased character several minutes of chatter to progress the story and bring up morality questions.

The premise of the story itself is rather interesting and someday I may go back to the game to see where it goes.  I would also be interested to see what the developers changed or added to the newer titles and if they come across as any less absurd as a result.


I pulled this one of my brother’s half of the PS3 shelf since he and his friends had been playing a lot of it recently.  STAR WARS – THE CLONE WARS: REPUBLIC HEROES is from Krome Studios and follows some of the adventures of the main heroes from The Clone Wars series.  It seems to cross back and forth between a beat-’em-up with some minor platforming and a ROBOTRON-style, two-joystick shooter.  The player controls a Jedi for the former and a clone trooper for the latter.  Both styles play from a third-person perspective, though the camera is not controlled by the player.  Generally this system works well in both play styles. In some instances, however, the fixed camera can make lining up jumps for the platforming elements tricky because of ambiguous jump directions.  In the clone trooper segments the camera often runs through awkward moments as it tries to move from one cinematic angle to another, leaving the player to deal with suddenly wanky controls while being pummeled by blaster fire.

Level design is straightforward (at least through the hour I played), with platforming segments separated from battling segments and no real alternate routes.  The designers chose to use trails of glowing spheres (physical manifestations of the force, implies Yoda) to help the player figure out where to go when playing a jedi level (trooper levels don’t have any platforming, so the path is more or less obvious in most cases).  The platform elements are greatly simplified, where simply jumping toward a platform will auto-land the character on the platform regardless of the width of the landing space much like Ubisoft’s PRINCE OF PERSIA.  The controls, however, are nowhere near as smooth or responsive.  There are often delays in direction changes or actions, leading, for instance,  to frustrating situations where Anakin will simply jump straight up and fall to his demise.  Luckily, “dying” simply resets you to the nearest checkpoint and checkpoints appear for nearly every screen, making it more about playing through the levels than worrying about making it through a level, a decision I standby given the audience and the style of the game.

The actual battling aspects are fun in the same way most beat-’em-ups are.  In order to fight the eventual boredom of swinging a lightsaber through waves and waves of droids, the designers added some simple force abilities and the ability to “droid-jak,” which is to hop on a droid and be able to control it.  This gives the player some variation in their droid butt-kicking and bonus points are awarded for continuing to destroy enemies in creative ways (much like STAR WARS – THE FORCE UNLEASHED does).  The clones get their variation through the ability to drive vehicles and the use of special guns (both of which I had not gotten a chance to try in my hour of play).

Overall, REPUBLIC HEROES comes off as simple fun.  The mechanics are proven and the designer added some interesting variations through the “droid-jak” abilities.  The basic controls and the camera could have used a bit more love, but are adequate in most cases.  Looking at the game’s case, I see it’s rated T (teen), but it feels to me, with it’s simplified play-mechanics, LEGO game-style co-op play, and silly bonuses (funny hats, heads, and droid dances), that it really wanted to be E (everyone) or E10+ (everyone 10 and up).  I suppose the blaster fire and lightsabers forced the T rating, though I find it no more violent (and maybe even less, since the characters only destroy robots) than THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: WIND WAKER, which carries an E10+ rating . . . just my observations.

Initial Impressions: DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS

I played a little bit more than just an hour on this massive console role-playing game from BioWare. Some of that was because I spent about twenty minutes of my usual hour making my character . . . and I was kind of rushing it. The first thing I was struck by when I finally got into the game was the quality of the introductory cut-scenes, or rather the lack of. I was surprised, after seeing the awesome prerendered trailers, to find the graphic quality of the intro to be so . . . lacking. The color palette is drab and the characters have very little distinguishing qualities. By the time the game actually started, I’d either gotten over or grown accustomed to the graphics as they didn’t bother me much afterward.

On to the game itself. The simple description: DRAGON AGE feels like a high fantasy FALLOUT 3, though with seemingly fewer meaningful choices in how you want to play your character. Not surprisingly, for a game with the proclaimed epicness of over 60 hours of gameplay, the start was slow. I played for about and hour and a half and ran into a handful of throwaway battles and two “real” ones with my human mage. They all took place in the span of about a half hour, during my characters rite of passage trial, which basically amounted to a tutorial. The rest of my time was spent wondering around the mage tower looking through cabinets and talking to random non-player characters while searching for Irving, the man I apparently needed to talk to to get the party started story-wise.

The game mechanics were polished and overall the game played well. The game is a third-person action role-playing game. Your character fights his opponent’s in real-time with a fairly intuitive hotkey system that allows the easy use of up to six abilities plus the regular attack. I found moving around while attacking to be a cumbersome affair, so my character ended up stationary during most of his fights. BioWare made no attempt to hide The underlying Dungeons & Dragons mechanics, which, though solid, seem somewhat archaic in gaming terms and I wonder if it’s not time for designers to eschew the old pen-and-paper models for character leveling in a role-playing game.

Overall, DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS has a somewhat compelling world, drab-looking characters (probably due to an effort to keep things feeling realistic), and solid gameplay based on a time-tested, though archaic, system.


Currently Playing: StarCraft II

Initial Impressions: MURAMASA: THE DEMON BLADE

This marks the first installment of my new mini-column entitled “Initial Impressions.”  Here I’ll be doing mini reviews of games I’ve never played before based on a single hour of play.  The first on the list is Vanillaware’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Wii (released in North America in September of 2009).  Muramasa is a beautiful 2D (yes, 2D) side-scrolling action/RPG/beat-em-up.  The main gameplay element involves battling characters in much the same way one would in a 2D fighter (e.g Street Fighter or Samurai Shodown) but with a somewhat simpler system that leads to a feeling of button-mashing in a lot of instances.  The game allows the player to improve the on-screen character through leveling up and forging new blades.  The game boasts hundreds of possible forging combinations, creating hundreds of different swords, each with unique properties and special attacks.  Sounds cool.  I personally found it a bit overwhelming, however, and realized fairly early on that, despite the promise of lots of options, each sword basically worked the same way.  Also, once realizing that this was a game designed for 60+ hours of play, I decided as fun and as pretty as the combat and environments were, I really couldn’t see myself playing a game like this for more than 10 hours at best.  Maybe a great story could pull me through the 60 hours (I mean, the game IS fun) but unfortunately I found it to be convoluted, esoteric Eastern-style story, heavy with Japanese cultural symbolism.  Fascinating, yes, but when I can’t connect with the character’s motivations, I find myself starting to wonder why I’m going through all this trouble.

Summary:  Beautiful game; generally fun, side-scrolling brawler that can sometimes degrade into mere button-mashing; convoluted Japanese plot line that many Westerners are probably either not going to care about or not be able to follow; lots and lots of game play hours (too many in my opinion).


Currently playing: World of Warcraft, Starcraft II

A Long Absence

Hello all you beautiful people.  It’s been a while since my last post here.  A lot and not that much at all has happened since the last post.  I’ve tried out quite a few games and been reading through 10-year old Game Developer magazines.  I’ve also gotten up to speed on general iPad/iPhone development using Objective-C and the iPhone SDK.

I’ve been getting into the habit in the last few weeks of sitting down with a game I’ve never played and trying it out for an hour.  I have a few reasons for doing this: a) as a designer, I want to look at what other games are doing/have done, b) I want to analyze how well other games pull a gamer in within the first moments of a game and how much of the game the player can get a feel for in those moments and c) I like to play games.  My plan was/is to write up my impressions of the games I’ve been running through.  So pretty soon you should be able to look forward to some notes on Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Assassin’s Creed, NickToons Unite!, Open Season, Sonic Heroes, Sonic & Knuckles, Jimmy Neutron: Attack of the Twonkies, Kirby Air Ride, and World of Warcraft. As you may have noticed, I’ve been raiding my little brother’s library for titles I hadn’t played.

Reading through the old Game Developer magazines has been interesting.  Not only has there been a lot of great information I’ve left sitting on my shelves for all these years, but it’s pretty fun reliving the history of game development through articles written when I was in college.  I’ve been reading them chronologically and just got to 2002 last night, a time when the Front Line Awards were praising the nVidia GeForce 3 graphics card, Maya 4, and the “new” Titanium Powerbook G4.  It was also funny to notice an ad for the 2002 Game Developers Conference while wearing the freebie shirt I got from attending the 2002 Game Developers Conference.

lastly, I just want to mention that the Pragmatic Programmers’ iPhone SDK Development by Bill Dudney and Chris Adamson is a great book for getting up to speed on the basics of iPhone/iPad development using Apple’s iOS SDK.  I found it well written and the progression of topics well thought-out.  I also liked that the authors chose to be tutorial-level detailed with new topics, but as the reader progresses through the book, the authors leave the implementation of previously learned material to the reader.  It does the dual job of forcing the reader to actually learn what there doing and practice it, while also making the book itself more readable and hold more information (since they don’t have to reprint the same instructions over and over again, lots of space is saved).  so yeah, good book.  Great resource.  It’s been super helpful in getting me my first iPad gig.



Currently playing: World of Warcraft Trial Edition

Intermittent Gameplay

mafia wars pic

In the last couple of days I’ve been playing with a Facebook app called Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures. The FAQ describes the gameplay as “intermittent,” which is to say, the designers force to player to go do something else while waiting for the next event to take place.  It’s an interesting concept that I found irritating as a player, yet I continue to play.  What’s even sillier about that is that D&D: Tiny Adventures doesn’t even have much in the way of play built into it.  The typical play session goes like this:

  • Open up the app
  • Check the adventure status
  • Read about what happened to your character
  • Bemoan or rejoice the result
  • Wait about 10 minutes
  • Repeat

Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Did he actually do anything?” and the answer would be, “No, I did not.”  The extent of the player’s meaningful actions is limited to choosing a couple of bonuses that he has the opportunity to use during the “adventure” and outfitting the character with the armors, weapons, belts, etc. typical of a high fantasy game.  It basically becomes a random story generator that forces the player to wait about an hour to read the story . . . and oddly, I keep playing it.

This made me curious about all those other Facebook apps I’ve been hearing about and getting invites for: Mafia Wars, FarmVille, and the like.  I decided, as a game developer, that these are things I should know about and have experience with especially considering they are pulling in upwards of 49 million active monthly users . . . just on Facebook.  Yes, 49 million users play FarmVille.  So I started an account on both Mafia Wars and FarmVille. Both “feature” the intermittent gameplay I was introduced to in D&D: Tiny Adventures, however both allow much more in the way of meaningful actions.  I find Mafia Wars thoroughly addicting, despite it’s weak graphic design.  It is a bit less intermittent than the other two subjects, especially in the first 5 or 6 levels, which probably helps hook a player early on.  All the games I tried featured leveling up and some amount of profile/character customization.  Each creates an interesting situation which is what caused me to write this blog at nearing 6 o’clock in the morning: these type of games make me look for something to do to pass the time until I can get back to the game.  I don’t know if that’s good or not, but here I am being mildly productive . . . though way past my bedtime ; )

Gotta go check my mafia, my farm, and my adventure!


Currently Playing: Mafia Wars, FarmVille, Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures, Army of Two