What I look for in video games: Part 3 of 5

3. Replayability —

Some of the best games of all time are good because you can play them a lot of times. It’s part of the attraction of sports games in particular, because you’re assured of at least a slightly different experience every time you play. Diablo (the original) was fantastic because the game was totally randomized every time you quit, giving you a chance for better treasure and new and/or different monsters to fight.

The kings of replayability are strategy games, like Civilization, Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, or the Total War series. Because they have different scenarios every time you play, you have to try new strategies each time to succeed. You learn as you play.

RPGs are also good, since there’s new quests, new characters, and sometimes even new endings. There’s finite replayability, unlike the other examples — at some point you will find everything there is to be found — but RPGs are usually abnormally long compared to other games anyway. Chrono Cross had some 20+ endings. Dragon Age had four, plus dozens of minor changes. Even a game with one ending, like Baldur’s Gate, still had plenty of side quests and reasons to choose one character class or another. Neverwinter Nights even lets you design your own game, which adds even more life to the game.

Two genres fall flat in replayability: first person shooter and real-time strategy. They also happen to be the two best formats for multiplayer, but I’m not really a big multiplayer kind of guy (Starcraft, Quake, and Doom being the biggest exceptions). There are ways to extend the replay value — mission creators and campaign modes for RTS, multiple endings or characters for FPS — but for the most part, you won’t play them more than once.

The X-factor are games that are such great experiences or have other factors going for them (like a great story) that you’ll play them multiple times anyway. I’ve beaten Journeyman Project over two dozen times and Myst seven or eight times. Myst does have multiple endings, but a strategic save will let you see them all. Starcraft is a wonderful experience and does better with multiple playthroughs.

The only games I usually don’t play more than once are oddly enough, RPGs. Most RPGs (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy VI) are so long and time consuming that I’d have to wait months before I’d be willing to play again. Some first person shooters let you experience everything right away; GTA 3, although not a first person shooter, was only worth one playthrough (unlike the other GTAs).

If I know I’ll only get one playthrough of a non-RPG, like Dead Rising 2, it’s harder for me to rate it highly. DLCs help cure this somewhat, but it has to be an awfully strong DLC (like the second of Assassin’s Creed II) to bring me back. I usually consider these rentals or reduced price games.


What I look for in video games: Part 2 of 5

4. Sound/Music/Voice Acting

I’m grouping these all into one category. All three form an important part of what makes games memorable: the atmosphere. BioShock is impressive because it simultaneously captures a huge underwater city and the 1950s with its soundtrack. GTA: Vice City is an awesome game because of the tremendous soundtrack and voice talent.

Usually, the only games that fall short are older games. Ultima Underworld II, the sequel to an underrated classic in my book, grated on me because the footsteps were the loudest thing in the entire game. Some of the sound effects in the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans were much too tinny. Newer games aren’t infallible, though, as the beggars in the original Assassin’s Creed prove.

Apart from outright errors and an appropriate theme, the sound, music, and voice acting can only add to a game, never detract. Many of my all-time favorite games have tremendous music, and I remember the music long after I’ve forgotten the game. Every time I play through Deus Ex again, I sit at the main title screen to hear the entire song. Same thing with Gun, which, while far inferior to Red Dead Redemption, still captures the old west with the sweeping opening theme.

Then there are modern sports games. Madden is particularly guilty of trying to find hip new songs to play (although Madden 11 did a great job of fighting that, going with classics) that only have name value. EA Sports as a whole usually comes up short in this department. The MLB: The Show series is even more irritating. For games like this, I often mute the sound and listen to something else.

Very few games are notable for sound effects, which either tend to be appropriate or not. Voice acting is a little more valuable, and can help make characters more noticeable when you recognize the voice. Ray Liotta as Tommy Vercetti, Thomas Jane as Colton White, Cam Clarke as Liquid Snake, and Tim Curry as Gabriel Knight lend more credence and star power to a game. Sometimes, however, even unknown voice actors can really capture your attention, like Rob Wiethoff’s John Marston. It’s about strong characters having appropriately strong actors voicing them.

I have only ever purchased the music for three games in my entire life: two of the radio stations from Vice City, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy VII. JRPGs often have the best music, largely because the Japanese take video game music more seriously than most. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid games have music from the extremely talented Harry Gregson-Williams, an acclaimed Hollywood composer.

I have never completely refused to play a game because of sound or music, unless there are technical errors (bad static). But it’s a big part of making sure I remember a game.

An Open Letter To Nurse Bloomberg

Dear Nurse Bloomberg,

I have noticed that the city over which you act as Jewish Mother is buried in snow, and your government agencies are having a tough time clearing the government roads.

If it helps, think of the snow as salt, and attack it with the might of your bureaucratic machine.  Although clearing the roads may not be as important a job for a local government as, say, ensuring that vending machines don’t have too many tasty options, due to the government having a pretty-well total monopoly on roads, people are not able to get around.

But look on the bright side:  because the government does hold this monopoly position, at least you guys can’t really be replaced for doing such a poor job of things!



Review You Can Use [tm]: Lego Star Wars: The Complete Series

Lego Star Wars: TCS combines two previously released Lego Star Wars games, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars: The Original Trilogy. It adds a new level, modifies a couple more, and adds some bonus missions and blue minikits to be had.

If you haven’t played any of the other Lego games, you’re in for a treat. The Lego series primarily comprises simplistic action and puzzle solving — it’s appropriate for children 10 and up, but some of the extra content might be too tricky. In the case of Star Wars, it retells the story of all six movies, using Lego characters and sets, complete with cutscenes. The characters don’t really talk, but watching them pantomime classic scenes is hilarious.

Each of the six movies is divided into six chapters: five combine the platforming, puzzle solving, and combat while the sixth is an arcade style shooter with some form of spaceship. After you finish a level, you can play it again with Free Play, which allows you to choose any characters you like, giving you access to different areas than you had before. You can also try the challenge, where you have five minutes to find 10 hidden blue canisters; success will earn you a unique vehicle and completion points.

Most of the non-story is accessed through the Mos Eisley cantina. You can find studs (the currency at the Cantina Store) to unlock characters or special powers, if you’ve found the red bricks. You’ll also access the bonus missions. There are six generic bonus missions, two for each movie, and twenty bounty hunter missions.

Unlocking everything is where most of the game comes in. You can finish the entire story portion in about five hours, if you go as fast as possible. But there’s a lot to discover. There are over a hundred characters and vehicles, and 160 gold bricks you get either by buying them, completing a level, reaching a certain number of studs, or finding all ten canisters in a level. You can apparently build something if you get all the bricks — I have no idea what, since I’m still working on it.

The controls are gloriously simple. Combat is a little more than button mashing, and you’ll rarely die in combat if you know what you’re doing. Each time you die, you’ll lose some studs, but that’s it. The most difficult platforming and puzzles are generally optional for extra stuff like the power bricks or minikits. The power bricks radically change the game and can help you earn studs more quickly, become invincible, and make Banthas poop studs, among other things.

For the most part, the game isn’t too difficult. Some of the bricks and kits are well hidden, and a couple of boss battles can be challenging if you don’t know the tricks. There’s so much to unlock, however, that you can find yourself playing a level four or five times to get it all. The brick and minikit detectors, if you can find them, help tremendously by giving a general idea where they are.

It’s a couple of years old now, and you can get it for cheap (I paid $15). It’s not worth paying full price, but it is relaxing, entertaining and great fun if you can get it cheap or rent it. It’s even better with two people, and this edition adds online multiplayer. Working together with a friend isn’t necessary for the most part, but it is more fun. It’s a great way to kill a day or two if you’re not interested in unlocking everything or a couple of weeks if you are. You can also experience surreal scenes, like Darth Maul and Darth Maul teaming up to defeat Darth Maul or Qui Gonn Jinn fighting the Emperor.


— Surprisingly deep

— Appropriate for all ages

— A great reminder of the awesome films


— A bit too easy

— Studs are either really easy to get or really difficult, depending on which power bricks you have

— Some of the “extra” characters are repetitive and don’t add much — how many different stormtroopers do you need?

What I look for in video games: Part 1 of 5

I thought that today I would give you, the fans, an insight into how I choose my video games and how I rated them. Hardcore readers of this site know of my many different ratings systems I’ve tried in the past, but what I consider important hasn’t changed. This will be a five part series, in reverse order of what is most important. I can play, enjoy, and heartily recommend a game with four out of the five, but without at least two, I’ll despise it.

Here are some criteria that didn’t make the cut.

Innovation: A really innovative game will make me pick it up. Black & White is probably the best example. But it won’t keep me playing without the other factors.

Publisher: Almost a non-factor, unless the studio is Blizzard. Every studio has flops and hits. I have brand loyalty, like the Civilization series, but that’s about it.

Graphics: I appreciate awesome graphics. Uncharted simply blows me away. But I’ll never buy a game solely on graphics, and pretty pictures won’t keep me there.

Technical stability: I hate bugs and glitches as much as the next guy, and I’ll always call a game on it. However, I rarely stop playing a game because of a bug or glitch unless it’s earth-shattering or has no workaround. I’m actually pretty forgiving. I know plenty of people who stopped playing Dragon Age because after 1.03 came out, it froze up every time you played it — I just rolled back to the older version, because I’d rather have long load times. It made me mad, but not enough to stop playing.

Loading times: I can always read a book or get a sandwich. Make them predictable and that’s all I ask.

Now, for our first entrant of those that did make the cut…

5. Difficulty

What exactly do I mean by difficulty? I don’t just mean if a game is easy or hard. Civilization IV still taxes me at any higher than the second difficulty level, and I can beat The Journeyman Project with my eyes closed, but I consider both favorites.

There are two components, for me, that must be addressed before I will rule positively or negatively on difficulty.

First, the learning curve. Even the most difficult game must start out easily enough, or I’ll get too frustrated and put it down. Now, a lot depends on genre, too. If it’s a first person shooter, it’ll only take me a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. An RTS should be two or three missions to get my feet wet before you throw the kitchen sink at me. That kind of thing.

If my character improves, learns new skills or gets better weapons, the difficulty should stagger a bit. I should be able to relish my new ability or weapon for at least a short period before you make things even harder.

The second part of difficulty is fairness. Some games are hard because they’re designed for better gamers. Mega Man games come to mind. When I pick up a Mega Man game, I expect things to be hard. If I weren’t slightly masochistic, I never would have chosen it.

Other games are hard because they’re complex and the AI is well designed. Strategy games and RPGs fall into this camp. Baldur’s Gate was really tough, but when I did win, it was an amazing feeling. I get better at Europa Universalis every time I play, but there’s always something new to learn.

Still other games are hard because they’re not well designed. These are the games I can’t stand. The price of death in any game should be severe enough that you try to avoid it, but not so severe that it drives you crazy. Save systems are the best possible solution to this problem. Dead Rising 2 takes a different approach, but it still works, because you keep your character improvements but lose your progress in the story. That’s another fair way to deal with the situation. A lot of early NES games take the unfair approach, where death forced you to restart from the beginning. I don’t like it, but then I know to avoid these games if I can’t pay the price. Most modern games don’t fall into this trap, and I’ve avoided the ones that do. (I’m looking at you, Dead Souls.)

However, the difficulty problem I’ve found in newer games, if it isn’t related to bad controls (another part of this series you’ll see), is bad AI. This doesn’t always make a game harder — Delta Force: Land Warrior featured amazingly stupid enemies that would never fire their guns. Ever. For any reason. If by some miracle they did fire, they would miss. At point blank range.

Pathfinding problems in RTS games (unit walks through the middle of the enemy base, despite clear instructions not to) or FPS games (computer controlled player steps in front of you when shooting) are frustrating. Equally frustrating are scripted events that don’t trigger when they should or, my biggest nightmare, items or skills that are critical to advancing in the game, only they’re really well hidden (the stupid skeleton key in King’s Quest 6) or nigh impossible to attain (pilot’s license in GTA: San Andreas). If something is critical and well-hidden, give me the option to go back and get it.

I’ve always believed the most difficult parts of a game, where designers can be as sadistic as they want, should be bonus or optional content. I don’t mind adding super hard levels, if you think life is too easy, but not if you can’t finish the game without them. Trophies are a great idea (achievements for X-Box fans) to add difficult features without detracting from the main experience. The hardest bosses in Final Fantasy VII are the optional bosses. That’s the way it should be. Dead Space is hard because it’s a hard game that makes you think about your choices. I’m okay with that (although I stopped playing it for other reasons). Beijing Olympics is hard because only actual Olympic athletes have the reflexes to win. That’s not okay. Sheep (an obscure Lemmings like PC game) is hard because the eponymous creatures are moronic, cute, and cuddly. They’re sheep after all. That’s fine. The original Rainbow Six is hard because the CPU teammates, allegedly elite counter-terrorist operatives, always stare straight ahead and always walk into the middle of a room and throw the grenade instead of just tossing it inside the door. That’s retarded.

In conclusion, games should be hard because they offer challenging situations for worthwhile rewards. They should be hard because you chose the wrong option of a number of viable alternatives. They should be hard, in other words, because the gamer screwed up, not because the designer did.



Post-Xmas quick hits

— Since I got some sweet cash for the holidays, we went to my local Gamestop-type retailer and bought two CDs, a movie (Anchorman) and two new PS3 games, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Series and Uncharted: Drake’s

— I also finally gave up on Dead Space. I still recommend it, and if I ever have some courage, I might try it again. What ultimately killed it was how contrived the story seemed to be at a certain point. “Isaac, you need to fix this system. Great, oh wait, now something else is broken. Hey, good job, but now this system is failing.” Just too repetitive.

— I’m still planning on doing a series on how I rate video games, but it will take longer than I thought. In the meantime, I’ll have a couple of reviews on the new games coming.

— If you like crime shows, Dexter is fantastic. The first two seasons are on Netflix. To get on my soapbox briefly, the problem with some of your newer crime shows is that they focus on gore (Bones, CSI to a lesser extent) or treat the cases in a vacuum (post Jerry Orbach Law & Order) without any real character development. I love Bones and CSI, but Dexter is an addiction. The gimmick — he’s a vigilante serial killer and simultaneously a forensics expert — works brilliantly, and the cast is fantastic. The gore is almost absent, which is a welcome change, and they follow consistent story arcs without just random cases. The entire first season focuses on the team chasing down one serial killer, in addition to some minor cases. A really great show I can’t recommend highly.

— We also got two free PPV movies for creating an online account for Dish Network. We got the Expendables and Inception. The Expendables may be the most manly movie ever made. It probably won’t win any Oscars, but it’s a fantastic film, with plenty of explosions and great one-liners. It’s almost too awesome at times, like Die Hard + Ocean’s 11 + Dirty Dozen.

Inception is one of two movies I’ve seen in the last six months that really blew me away (the other being District 9). Christopher Nolan already won me as a director with the Dark Knight, but he does a phenomenal job making a potentially murky plot clear and easy to follow. It’s not just weird for the sake of weird; there’s a clear purpose. I haven’t seen a lot of movies from 2010, but it’s the best I’ve seen. I still think District 9 is better, and should have won Best Picture last year from what I can tell, but Inception is worth the cash.

Totally Not Death Panels In Any Way

The Obama administration is trying to sneak death panels back in with a fake mustache.

When the government controls spending on health care, it is natural to “cut costs” and “achieve efficiencies” by rooting out and “planning around” the most expensive cases.  If you let old granny with the bad hip and Alzheimer’s die, you save a lot of money, which can be doled out to buy voting blocs and corporate fundraising dollars for re-election campaigns.

Also, this shows a major problem with Obamacare:  what should be handled by the legislature is being delegated (unconstitutionally) to the executive.  Health and Human Services does not have the constitutional authority to write this type of legislation; only Congress can.  Unfortunately, Congress abrogated this authority several decades back, and it’s rather doubtful that the Supreme Court would even be willing to accept the pre-Great Society split between the legislative and executive in terms of rule-making authority.  So even after Congress drops the death panel portion of Obamacare, the bureaucrats get to sneak it back in under cover of regulatory authority.