Sunday, June 6, 2010

Games of Fame (Part 2)

Myth II: Soulblighter (1998)
Platform(s): Computer
Developer/Publisher: Bungie
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: RTS 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 check this game out, then 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 sees you disembark from a sailing ship and make out across a beachhead to secure a cannon fort firing 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. 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: 8+
Interest Level:
Avg. Playtime:
Expert Playtime:
Possible Endings:
Popular Metascore: 9.1/10
Key Feature(s):

Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Platform: PS3/XBox 360

"Na na na na na na na na na na NA, Batman!"

What a venerable franchise! What a resilient character! The type of character that can be built to adapt to whatever history requires of him (the good and the bad), and still remain such an iconic, virile figure of the modern imagination. Just as Batman has endured major motion pictures poorly constructed for little more than commercial convenience, so too has he proven stronger than the dearth of quality video game titles that have born his name. Despite this, Arkham Asylum stands out like a brilliant comet destined to streak across the sky only once a generation.

In B:AA you took on the role of the Dark Knight Detective pitted against the very house of madness he has been responsible for keeping in business for so long. The game managed to dovetail a liquid smooth beat-em-up combat system that relied on your timing and creative use of Batman's acrobatic move set, with an intuitive stealth component that encouraged you to make varied use of Arkham's gothic architecture, all packaged on an eerie island exploration theme that never felt confined. The game was one continuous run through, without level or chapter breaks, with moments split up between slick cut scenes, mass brawls against armed and unarmed henchmen, crime scene investigations, and boss fights that were never straight forward but always engaging. (There were even scavenger hunt-style riddles and puzzles scattered across the island that played into a subplot that ran alongside the main story.)

But the reason this game warrants such high praise from me is because of the longevity. Shouldn't people be tired of Batman? After numerous movies, cartoons, and video games, this character and his world still finds ways to wow. It's when creators do the property justice (Miller, Timm, Loeb, Nolan) that its true colors show. It's when the designers at Rocksteady (with the ever worthy Dini on writing duties) draw inspiration from the root of the franchise's greatness—the comics—that Batman comes to life. Had this video game been the first to bear Batman's name it would have still deserved applause, but after 70 years (the latter 20 of those during which no good Batman games came of light) and Batman can still find himself at the top of the heap regardless of the medium, that's something to stand up and cheer about!

You can get your own copy of the game (including the Game of the Year edition) on Amazon. Here's a link to the PS3 version.

Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Platform(s): Console and computer
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Times Conquered
Interest Level
Avg. Playtime
Expert Playtime
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: 9.6/10
Key Feature(s)

"…destined to streak across the sky [read: gamer's screen] only once a generation." Boy was I wrong!

The great minds and artists at Rocksteady didn't let down fans nor the game 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.

They could have phoned it 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 widest assortment of the Rogue's Gallery ever presented in one narrative. There are so many things Rocksteady could have cut from the game and still have succeeded. Case in point: Calendar Man. And yet, the game doesn't get bogged down or feel oversaturated. 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 terrible, 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.)

Haters be damned. B:AC is a big FU to the shrinking hater crowd (whether it be against Batman, superhero comic books, or when the two come together to form a video game), and you'd have to be a hater to dislike a game like this. Best next-gen console game to-date. Period dot. Arkham City is playable on the PS3, Xbox, and PC.

Honorable Mention

Wolfenstein 3D (Computer, id Software, 1992) -

Super Mario Kart (Console, Nintendo, 1992) -

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 title 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) -

Star Wars Battlefront II (Console, LucasArts, 2005) -