Sunday, June 6, 2010

Games of Fame (Part 2)

Myth II: Soulblighter (1998)
Platform(s): Computer
Developer/Publisher: Bungie
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: Real-time purists, especially lovers of gritty medieval war fantasy
Avg. Playtime: ~24 hours
Expert Playtime: 9 hours or less
Possible Endings: 1 (plus numerous "game over outcomes")
Popular Metascore: 8.8/10
Key Feature(s): Realistic combat/physics engine; no resource management (good!); diversity of units

Even though I had been exposed to real-time strategy games like Warcraft II before, nothing could have prepared me for the awesomeness that was the Myth series of games, particularly the first two developed by Bungie. No games before or since have contained a more stirring, haunting, and evocative sequence of narrations, each adroitly laying out the backstory and world where all the action takes place. Samples can be heard here and here. The Myth series were dark, moody RTT games that forewent the incessant need to build/harvest resources and instead focused the gameplay on squad movement, careful tactics, and phenomenal set pieces. You never had to struggle trying to command dozens upon dozens of units, though the combat never felt lacking. Arrows would miss; units would sometimes block enemy attacks with shields or "stutter" the enemy with repeated blows; units would gain experience with each kill, becoming prized veterans that often stayed with you level after level; blood, corpses, and body parts colored the battlefield in a lingering salsa-like smear; and the game's physics engine caused explosions to ripple the ground and debris to scatter like shrapnel.

From top to bottom, Myth II is a technical upgrade from its inaugural. I still remember the game's beautifully animated opening cinematic. Landscapes pop with color and dimension, forcing the eye to believe they belonged there and had developed through the ages (instead of being pieced together bit by byte on some programmer's monitor). Character sprites are more diverse and articulated, when never before would I think that simply watching my units mill about on screen would serve to pass the time. And the controls are expanded upon while simultaneously made more intuitive, turning the chore of selecting and deselecting units and managing the battlefield into pure joy. Not to mention that you can play the original, M:TFL, in its entirety through Myth II's engine, an engine so robust that it was developed to run maps with unique units based on medieval Japan, the wild west, and WWII.

Then there's the level design. Sweet Lord have mercy the level design! This game takes you from sandy beaches to wind swept tundras to extra-dimensional prisons. In Myth II, you get to storm a keep where a traitorous baron attempts to escape his doom; battle mostly naked titans on a hilltop-studded field of glory; and face an immortal and his army of ravenous man-eaters on the slopes of an active volcano (and if that image doesn't make you want to drop whatever you're doing right now and Google this thing, you need to check your gaming pulse)! But it's often the simpler, less earth-shattering levels that invoke the greatest reactions out of me. I can think of two levels in particular. One, called "Landing at White Falls," sees you disembark from a sailing ship and strike out across a beachhead to secure a fort firing cannons on said ship. If you deliberate too long, or the enemies hold you off, the ship inevitably takes too much damage and the level is lost. Another, entitled "The Wall," directs you to defend the walls of a dam that the enemy seeks to wreck as a means of flooding the land. The tension in these levels is foisted upon you immediately—it's do or die from the get go!

Today: Old copies of the game can still be found on most computer platforms on Amazon or eBay. Project Magma and The Tain are great fan-developer sites, still being supported to this day, full of official and third-party game updates, mods, and files ready for download.

Aliens versus Predator (1999)
Platform(s): Computer
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Fox Interactive
Times Conquered: ~4
Interest Level: Fans of the Alien or Predator franchises, FPS thrill-seekers
Avg. Playtime: 6-9 hours
Expert Playtime: 2-4 hours
Possible Endings: 3 (1 each for the three separate campaigns)
Popular Metascore: ~8/10
Key Feature(s): Three unique single-player campaigns tailored to the three playable species; terrifying level design; early appearance of the predalien

I discovered this game in college a couple years after it debuted. I still have images in my mind from the single-player campaigns even though its been years since I've played it. During multiplayer matches, I remember really falling in love with the lethal capabilities of the predator's smart disc weapon and the yowls of dismay it would inspire in my roommates when used against them. And this was probably the first FPS I ever played that looked, sounded, and played exactly like how you'd expect when compared with how its characters are portrayed and its settings are presented in the movies. Simply put, it was an adaptation that worked!

One of the great aspects of this game is that it presents three wholly different character types to play: the predator, the colonial marine, and the alien. In the predator campaign, you revel in the fact that in a straight up 1v1 melee or ranged contest, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor. It's easy to think that the predator is overpowered against either the aliens or the colonial marines, but he does have one glaring drawback. Practically everything the predator uses, from the shoulder cannon to the optic camouflage to the aforementioned disc, eats up resources from a single pool of energy that regenerates over time. Once that's gone or low, you often feel more like prey than predator. The colonial marine, on the other hand, while the physically slowest and weakest, has the widest array of equipment and healing options, and access to the single most powerful weapon in the game: a shoulder-mounted launcher called the SADAR which can kill pretty much anything with a direct hit! The alien, unlike the others, completely eschews equipment and items. Instead, the alien relies on its incredible speed, devastating melee attacks (of which its tail snap, when at full strength and in the right location, can fell a predator with one hit), and its ability to climb any surface to stay competitive. It's also remarkable how each species has its own variety of vision modes (needed to spot different targets), as well as its own methods of healing (the predator will use up all its energy to inject itself with a kind of hypo as shown in the movies; the marine will find health kits scattered throughout the environment; and the alien has to carefully bite the heads off live prey). And the game nicely ramps up enemy threats, from cyborg-aliens ("Xenoborgs"), to predaliens, to Queen aliens.

The music and atmosphere in this game is also spot-on! The predator pieces have a great jungle native vibe. The marine tracks are appropriately driving with military-like drum lines. And the alien pieces are nicely quiet and creepy with dramatic orchestra hits. The music, lighting, and environments of this game put you in the perfect frame of mind, and games are best when they frame the world so that you feel like you're actually in it. (In fact, only Alien: Isolation surpasses AvP1 in terms of creating the right atmosphere, granted Isolation is more recent and is survival-horror, a genre that lives or dies by its atmosphere.)

Today: Old, cheap copies of the original can still be found on Amazon or eBay, and is also available on Steam as a digital download. An equally well-received sequel (AvP2) and a somewhat less well-received updated version (Aliens vs Predator), out on multiple platforms, are harder to find but also out there.

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
Platform(s): Computer
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Black Isle Studios/Interplay Entertainment
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: Dungeons & Dragons and "old school" cRPG fans, especially fans of the Forgotten Realms
Avg. Playtime: 90+ hours
Expert Playtime: 30 hours or less
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: 9.5/10
Key Feature(s): Real-time or turn-based play; uses AD&D 2nd Edition rules for character creation and combat; customizable party (from 1 to 6 members out of a cast of 15+) throughout the game; Drizzt Do'Urden and Elminster in supporting roles

Being an old school pen 'n paper gamer since the mid-90s (for which the illusion of doing anything you wanted always felt so palpable), virtually no cRPG has ever managed to capture my imagination and deliver an engaging story along with interactive characters and detailed settings while leaving the game world open for you to explore at your leisure. BioWare's Baldur's Gate series, however, is the closest anything's ever come. Out of this, Shadows of Amn is an exploration-based RPG with a dynamic combat system, memorable voice work, rousing soundtrack, and a convincing and stylish 2D isometric graphical design. And though the game shares the same "illusion" I hinted at found in the tabletop version, easily 90% of the choices you make and directions you take throughout are player-directed. So long as you enjoy playing the game in the moment, you simply never notice these instances of being led because the game pulls off the magic trick so well.

Part of this series' signature feel is how it so adeptly carves out a region of an established role-playing fantasy world—in this case, the Forgotten Realms—and portrays it with a high level of authenticity and care. The makers were not overly ambitious in their design by attempting to adapt too much of a good thing, ultimately rendering it tasteless and bland (exhibit A). Instead, first in BG1, they chose to take the player on a focused tour of the world's coastal countryside (full of folksy taverns and local intrigues), with it's inhospitable ruins (where critters, brigands, and lost treasure lie-in-wait), culminating in a citywide climax in the port for which the game is named. Continuing the story but with deeper character building options beyond the basic classes (thief, fighter, cleric, wizard, etc.), in BG2 certain characters belonged to more specialized and flavorful classes like the bounty hunter, shapeshifter, or inquisitor (to name a few). You still got to play with a wealth of spells and special abilities unique to Dungeons & Dragons, like stoneskin (coating your mage in onion-like stone layers that negate physical attacks), ice storm (showering your foes in glacial shards), and time stop (pretty badass explanatory), but you could also acquire and maintain your own fiefdom, vie for vaunted positions in powerful organizations, and explore the game's more complex interactivity by romancing NPCs. And you still got to test your mettle against signature D&D foes, this time including dangers like vampires, liches, and dragons (oh my)!

Though you were again free to pursue your own path along a gently directed storyline that took the opposite tact from the first game in starting you within a big city then branching out into the surrounding wilderness, BG2 eschewed the more open-world roaming aspect of its predecessor. Instead the game designers decided to broaden the palette for detailed environments and populate them more fully, necessitating a restriction to your movement on the world map to more specifically defined regions (including a romp through a pirate island and insane asylum, and a lengthy delve through the Underdark). It's a quality over quantity approach—which I admire and use in my own tabletop ventures—thus giving both games a different feel, neither of which is purely better than the other (i.e. in BG1 you often stumble upon encounters as you explore; in BG2 you always know exactly where you can and can't go). There is so much to do and see in the game that even after playing it through as many times as I have, I've never slain every monster or completed every quest. Plus, there's none of the silly retread-the-same-area-for-the-umpteenth-time pitfall that many other video game RPGs tend to fall into. And talk about a challenge! This game can easily clock in at over 100 hours for the uninitiated. I love how the game demands the full attention of the player, especially as you start out and experience lower levels of advancement through the game, and the tension and uncertainty that comes with it is felt on every sword stroke and every arcane syllable.

Today: A dedicated modding community full of new game material and programing tools can be found at Pocket Plane Group. The series also lives on—in even greater glory than ever, I submit—thanks to Beamdog's Enhanced Editions (which also include Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. Go there, on Steam, or iTunes to get yours; also available at the touch of a finger on your mobile device or tablet!

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Platform(s): Console
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Times Conquered: ~4
Interest Level: Boss fight enthusiasts, epic fantasy fans, and fans of exploration on horseback
Avg. Playtime: 9-10 hours
Expert Playtime: 5 hours or less
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: 9.1/10
Key Feature(s): Amazing boss fight set-pieces; free roam open-world gameplay; fun secrets/collectibles/unlockables

Few games become instant classics, but this unique third-person action-adventure title was sure fire one coming out of its past generation. Taking on the role of the sword-wielding, bow-shooting Wander, you explore a desolate grassland of amazing cliffside vistas and sprawling deserts studded with tree-covered oases, lakes, and caves that all suggest some past dead civilization that once ruled the lands. Hidden in ancient bowers and forbidding ruins you awaken the game's eponymous colossi, each a towering or hulking monstrosity that you must defeat in your quest to restore life to a comatose girl who lies motionless on an altar in a cathedral-like fortress at the heart of the setting. Always by your side is Agro, Wander's faithful and incredibly lifelike black charger who is your indispensable companion throughout the quest.

Dialogue, text-based menus or gameplay, and cutscenes are virtually non-existent (as are loading screens), no NPCs or any other characters are anywhere for you to interact with, and there are no items or pickups (save for tree fruit and lizards you can hunt to improve your health and strength), yet the game is anything but a shallow playthru. It's minimalist and zen-like; equal parts art and entertainment. The game's unmatched (for its time) physics engine and vivid environments come together to provide a satisfying experience as you ride, scramble, and mostly climb your way across the game world (with climbing mechanics that feel truer to the real thing than the Uncharted series can boast). Your strength (governing your striking power and grip) grows with each defeated colossi, though so too does the mystery behind the colossi's reason for being and how their deaths are affecting you. Led by an ominous voice from the cathedral-fortress and the guiding light of your magical sword, Wander inexorably battles and outwits his way through sixteen colossi of land, sea, and air. These are easily some of the best designed boss fights in gaming history! One such requires you to fire arrows to annoy the great eagle-winged colossus enough to dive bomb you over an island-dotted lake, after which you must leap on to its feathers and crawl about its body to vulnerable areas where you can damage it. Another has you hunker inside a pillared ruin as you attempt to lure the terrifying bearded colossus to stoop and reach its hand in after you. The final colossus sits like a mountain god atop its pedestal hurling bolts of energy at you that can leave you sprawling about the rubble-littered field.

The shocking ending and coda afterward promises more questions than answers, but it's sure to make you want to start over again in a desperate search for more answers if not to enjoy the ride one more time. The game smartly includes a hard mode and time attack modes (with added special unlockable items that prove useful) after you beat it the first time, adding good replay value.

Today: The game lives on as a digital download, along with its spiritual predecessor ICO, on the PlayStation Network, but can also still be found in bargain bins online or at stores. A soon-to-be released HD remake for modern consoles is due out in 2018. And for those seeking similar, if not less famous, thrills, The Last Guardian stands as the spiritual successor to Shadow of the Colossus.

Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Platform(s): Console/Computer
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: Modern Age Batman enthusiasts, action movie fans, and fans of Kevin Conroy's or Mark Hamill's voice acting
Avg. Playtime: ~24 hours
Expert Playtime: 8 hours or less
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: 9.6/10
Key Feature(s): Story penned by Paul Dini; boss fights against signature rogues gallery foes; industry defining combat system; engaging side quests

The great minds and artists at Rocksteady didn't let down fans nor the gaming community when Arkham City hit the digital waves. Not at all. They stepped it up, and stepped it up big, branching out from the ideas and game design philosophy firmly established in Arkham Asylum and giving the player a fully realized and fully satisfying game experience spanning the depth and breadth of the Bat-verse! This is how sequel's should be done.

The Arkham series manages to dovetail a liquid smooth beat-'em-up combat system, relying on your timing and creative use of Batman's gadgets and acrobatic move set, with an intuitive stealth component that encourages you to make ample use of Gotham City's varied gothic architecture. And whereas the first game needs to feel more confined as the action is contained all on eerie Arkham Island where the famous asylum stands, City opens up the world and allows you to literally glide your way across the entire game world. No game has a traversal system as cool as that! The games are one continuous playthru, without level or chapter breaks, with moments split up between slick cutscenes, mass brawls against armed and unarmed henchmen, crime scene investigations, and boss fights that are never straightforward but always engaging. The series is famous also for its scavenger-hunt-style riddles and puzzles scattered across the island that play into a subplot running alongside the main story.

With City, Rocksteady could have phoned it in and still made a killing. But they didn't. Continuing and building on the story and events after Asylum, City tells a tale involving the deepest assortment of Bat-villains ever presented in one narrative. And despite the wide cast, nothing feels given a short shrift or weak-in-the-knees. Case in point: Calendar Man—along with Long Halloween, this is one of the greatest uses of the character to-date. Hugo Strange is nicely used as the game's central antagonist, though the show-stealer is Hamill's Joker, complete with a heart-stopping ending. Discussing all the many things this game gets right can't be done in such a brief entry. It's a lot easier to talk about the frighteningly few minor quibbles I have: Bane's somewhat hackneyed portrayal, and Râ's al-Ghûl's voice (while not terribly distracting, I would have preferred David Warner). (And yes, the correct and proper pronunciation for The Demon's Head is "raysh awl-ghoul," as spoken in the game, not "rawz," who is a character from Frasier.) And despite Rocksteady's newer, bigger, and shinier sequel, Arkham Knight, City makes use of the characters and material better without feeling overstuffed.

Today: Arkham City is still regarded as one of the best next-gen titles to have come out in recent years. You can find your own copy on most digital platforms or on Amazon and eBay. Remastered versions of the first two games, including City, are bundled in the Batman: Return to Arkham collection.

Honorable Mentions

Wolfenstein 3D (Computer, id Software, 1992) - This was my family's first video game obsession. My dad, brother, and I all spent countless hours murdering Nazis, hugging walls to find secret doors, and escaping to safety to the rockin' tunes of the Mac version. The franchise has gone on to spawn many iterations (I even have memories of playing the original on the Apple II), but this one really started something in the industry!

Super Mario Kart (Console, Nintendo, 1992) - A perennial favorite in all its forms, it was the SNES version that I cut my teeth on many a summer day at neighborhood friends' houses. Though the formula of the third-person racer has taken many forms over the years (e.g. LittleBigPlanet Karting), Mario Kart remains the funnest party game I've ever played.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 (Console, Capcom, 1998) - To date, my favorite fighting game. It had a deep roster of characters, fun play modes (also being the only SF series to allow co-op team play, with two players versus the com), and the most complete story (ironic considering it was a prequel) reminiscent of the excellent earlier animated movie.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Console, Eidos Interactive, 1999) - Wonderfully realized and scripted (by Amy Hennig, no less!) dark fantasy adventure featuring a great voice cast and soundtrack. Another in a successful franchise, but this one was definitely the breakout title. (And how about Raziel for coolest character design ever!)

Star Wars Battlefront II (Console, LucasArts, 2005) - I'm sorry, but the newer Star Wars Battlefront (2015) pales in comparison to this one in terms of gameplay. The canonical single-player campaign, the ship-to-ship space battles, and the Jedi v Sith free-for-all mode—all only playable in the LucasArts version! 'Nuff said.

Go back to part 1!