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

From My Littlest Brother’s Collection

Ben 10 Protector of Earth

I decided last night, when I was too zoned out to keep doing any “real” work, that I wanted to do something more than just play a game or watch one of the several things on my list of things to watch (which includes some great stuff like Police Squad! and Cowboy Bebop).  So instead I thought I’d start going through my 8 year-old brother’s game collection and make notes on what I found.  I started with what he was playing before he went to bed last night: Ben 10 Protector of Earth for PlayStation 2.  Ben 10 is based on the Cartoon Network animated series of the same name and involves a young Ben Tennison who fights baddies with an alien “watch” that allows him to transform into different alien forms.  Sounds like a good premise for a game.

The game has a cell-shaded graphical style and seems to use the same voice actors from the show, giving it a pretty authentic feel for the IP.  I’d seen my little brother play it before, so I knew I was about to play a brawler.  What I didn’t realize is that the developers had almost completely reused the mechanics from one of the best brawlers on the Playstation 2 (and on almost any system to date), God of War.  Ben 10 Protector of Earth is God of War for kids!  If you haven’t played God of War, know that it is a 3D platforming brawler with some character progression and puzzle elements.  It features an ancient Greek setting and epic boss battles against creatures of immense size.  Ben 10 pulls many of the same game design elements: from the larger than life boss battles with their timing-based mini-games to the unlocking of new combos to increase your alien forms’ powers and versatility. I was surprised at how many game mechanics were pulled directly from God of War.

That was a brilliant move on the part of the developers (Cartoon Network Interactive, 3D Publishers, and High Voltage Games).  The game system is proven and would just need to be rebalanced for a slightly less skilled player.  This costs less in design time and allows the developers to focus more on integrating the IP and giving it justice.  I wonder how many other Teen and Mature-rated games could be reworked into E and E-10+ games, giving them a wider available audience . . .

Aside from the brilliance of reusing game elements from successful older rated games I think the game is pretty good.  The character progression, unlockable alien forms, and decent story kept me involved.  The brawling itself is a little repetitive and more obvious than its God of War inspiration.  Falling off the level in the first couple stages is absurdly easy to do and causes instant failure, but failure has little consequence in the game as there aren’t a limited number of lives or continues.  If I didn’t have a gazillion other things to play right now, I could see myself going through the whole game.  Not bad for a kid’s cartoon IP.

Game on,


PS – The trailers for the live-action movie based on the teenager version of Ben 10 looks pretty cool.

Currently playing: Ben 10 Protector of Earth

Guitar Hero 5

So the Guitar Hero Van Halen promotional offer reeled me in (or, more accurately, reeled my father in — he really wants the Van Halen edition) and I bought the Guitar Hero 5 bundled with the latest Red Octane guitar.  I’ve had a chance to mess around with it a bit and thought I’d share my initial impressions.

First off, I love the new party mode.  Talk about getting into a game with no fuss!  Instead of a main menu, the latest Guitar Hero goes straight to loading up one of the songs from its library.  If you just want to start rocking out, simply grab an instrument, press the appropriate button, choose your difficulty and go.  Sounds normal in description, but the difference is the song has still been playing the entire time you’ve been setting yourself up.  When your friends have their acts together, they can join in at anytime without you having to stop the song to add them in.  If you didn’t like the difficulty you were playing, change it on the fly.  It doesn’t effect anyone else’s play.  If you happen to have more than the usual two guitars (’cause your buddy brought his axe over, too), play with three or even four guitarists.  It all works very smoothly and I think it’s an outstanding feature to add for those times when you just want to get some songs going and you don’t want to have to run an election to figure out which song everyone’s playing next.  In party mode, when the song’s over, it picks a new one randomly and just starts it right up (showing off everyone’s performance scores while it loads).  Pretty nifty.

The play is just like the previous Guitar Heros, though I could swear there are a lot more chords than the previous games.  Also there are now flaming note sections.  I don’t know what they’re for yet, but I assume they’re something like the band unison sections in Rock Band 2.  There are also interesting little challenges in the Career mode that go along with each song.  Things like upstrumming all of Gamma Ray on bass or trying to whammy the long notes as long as possible on In My Place.  Kinda fun.

The biggest drawback to the game has just been the lack of tunes that I have a great desire to play.  When I first threw it in and flipped to Quickplay (which has most or all of the songs unlocked by default thank you very much!), I was skipping over dozens of songs to find a single one that would be interesting.  I can’t recall anything (except maybe Song 2 or the Santana tune) that I really REALLY wanted to play.  That part was disappointing.  Neversoft did give us players the option of importing some (not all . . . boo) of the songs from World Tour.  It also requires a small licensing fee (like Rock Band), but at least it fleshes out the Guitar Hero 5 library a bit so you can play with the great features the latest edition of the franchise adds.

Oh, and on a side note the faux-sparkly red Fender knockoff guitar that came bundled with the game feels really nice.  It seems quieter than it’s World Tour brother and I like the soft grip they’ve added on the strum bar and directional knob.

All in all I still love these games and I can’t wait for The Beatles Rock Band tomorrow!

Rock on,


Currently Playing: Guitar Hero 5