Deus Ex: Human Revolution – An Advanced Lesson in World Building
September 5, 2011

Hello all. It’s been a while since my last post, forgive me but I don’t have that much time to play games. Still changing my reviewing format, but I guess my style really doesn’t change all that much.

Game: Deus Ex Human Revolution
Genre: Action RPG
Play Time: 25~40 hours


So, obviously, Deus Ex isn’t an Indie Game. But I started playing it after Blocks That Matter and found myself very pleasantly enthralled in the game for the 30 or so hours I’ve played. But beyond the fact that it’s a well made triple-A game, I want to make a note of DXHR for one exemplary reason, the Story.

Regarding Everything Else Except the Story: The Art of Forcing Choice

DXHR is a polished and well made game even without the story. The genre is, like almost every triple-A game ever these days, Action RPG. But, it’s a good ARPG. In fact, it’s a fairly awesome ARPG considering the fact that it’s a triple-A game. The reason behind this is the fact that this game allows for, according to the developers, ‘four pillars of gameplay.’ These ‘pillars’ are Combat, Stealth, Hacking and Exploration and these four styles of gameplay weave in and out of each other fluidly, allowing natural transitions from one to the other.

As such, you have this newfangled aspect of gaming called choice laid in front of you. And this is where DXHR truly embraces the Western RPG format; where you role-play yourself through an avatar in a new world. For example, I’m not much a fan of cover-based shooting, or FPSs in general. As a result, I made a non-lethal melee specialist, going for stealthy approaches and quick, silent takedowns. But on that same vein, you could just as easily make a tank going on a shooting spree. This is where the level design shines through. You’re allowed to progress through the game however you want. If you feel like stealthily climbing vents and ladders through an entire area, you are very welcome to do so without harming a fly. If you feel like sitting on a ledge or behind a box and sniping off everyone, you’re more than welcome to do that as well. The experience gain is adequately balanced based on difficulty of the route you’re taking and understanding which route is more difficult is intuitive.

But, of course, there are problems. The biggest qualm I have about this game is the level of repetitiveness of the progression. Of course, this has some part to do with my completionist nature which forces me to wipe out every room AND explore every tunnel, but it also has to do with the restrictions the game imposes on itself. The challenges in the game progress in a room by room fashion. This is to be expected, there isn’t really any other way to do this type of game, but because of this, things begin to repeat after a while. Ultimately, every difficulty is overcome by a) incapacitating everyone or b) bypassing everyone via some vent or crawling around. And once you’ve knocked out your 100th enemy (there’s an achievement for that) half way through the game, you realize how mechanical the gameplay can be.

What’s worse, is that the upgrades available don’t change your playstyle all too much. Sure, the invisibility upgrade lets you bypass enemies more easily and the parachute upgrade lets you fall from any height, but that’s it. All that the upgrades do is make your life easier, almost as if you’re cheating. It’s interesting really, because throughout the game, almost every upgrade made me feel as if I were cheating. And maybe I’m a sucker for pain, but once you have the ability to turn invisible for half a minute, stealth no longer has the same meaning.

The Icarus Landing Augmentation. Yes, it also makes you look EPIC

And the repetition doesn’t stop at the gameplay, it affects the aesthetic and sound as well. Most notably, and most irritatingly, the character animations during social interaction sequences repeat insufferably. I’ve seen so many characters do, what I call the ‘self throat chop’ so many times, I get angry just thinking about it. I mean, I understand that it’s difficult to animate human motions while talking, but for fucks sake could you animate more than 5 different body gestures? I’m not expecting no LA Noire but seriously, too many people use the self throat chop.

But despite the repetitive nature of the game, the mise en scene was brilliant. The moody, quiet and ambient music melded very well with the dark, gritty, sepia-toned world and characters. As far as ARPGs go, the gameplay is superb and by virtue of the fact that it even offers a stealth or nonlethal option makes the game stand out as far superior to the more or less weak and drab triple-A contenders of this year.

But Now, the Main Course: World Building

On its own, Deus Ex was very good. Now, if you add the story, and the world that DXHR is set in, you get great and amazing. The level of detail that went into building this world that Deus Ex is in is phenomenal and this is where one can notice the differences between good, great, and remarkable stories.

The Deus Ex Icarus Trailer. Really, you should just go watch it.

Before going into DXHR though, lets decipher what these differences really are. First, what makes a good story? A good story is a story that makes effective use of the story structures that everyone knows; namely exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. This is the standard story structure that everyone knows. Now on this template, you start adding more sub-templates such as genre, setting, conflict, character, etc. etc. These are all the components of a good story. Once you fill in the blanks, with appropriate and attractive answers (like madlibs) you get a good story. And so, look at Deus Ex. You have the story structure, all set and ready to go. You have the genre, Action/Thriller, the setting, Cyberpunk future, the conflict, revenge for killing your people, the character, security guard. Even on its own, without any exposition, this looks like a good story. I could make one up right now. A security guard who lost his parents to a terrorist attack is now seeking revenge by using the cyberpunk tools given to him. Little did he know that as he figured out more about these terrorists, that the terrorist leader was actually his father. Or some such nonsense. You get the point, a good story is just effectively filling in the blanks.

So what makes a great story? The primary difference between a good and great story is creativity and innovation. In part, it’s doing your research. A great story contains depth, underlying forces, aspects that are not immediately obvious from the outset and from the blanks that have been filled. This could take the form of layered plots and overarching conflicts beyond the main character, or it could take the form of character development into unexpected and novel directions. But the difference is in this creativity and this adding upon the blanks that have been filled. DXHR does this, quite simply, with the Purity vs. Augmentation conflict that is going on beyond the scope of the main character.

And then, we have remarkable stories. The primary difference here is effort and the expansiveness of the world that is being created. Up until now, Deus Ex is little different than Ghost in the Shell and GitS did this whole thing 11 years before the first Deus Ex even came out. So really, there’s nothing new to Deus Ex and nothing novel about it. What makes DXHR remarkable is the level of detail that went into creating this entire world.

The world of DXHR is vast and deep. Scattered throughout the game are little eBooks, Newspapers, Personal emails and other tidbits of society that fleshes out the world that Deus Ex is set in. These tidbits of information don’t help in any way towards the game. They’re just there as things to read and use to learn more about the background of the world that DXHR is set in. It’s this level of detail, this amount of effort into making this detail, that sets DXHR apart.

Deus Ex Human Revolution truly is a grand example in world building. Because everything is voiced, you can walk the streets of Detroit to hear the conversations that people are having with their complaints, their worries and their funny stories. It adds a new level of depth not only to the main character, but also the world that this game is set in. Add that to the above standard gameplay and edgy atmosphere presented by the aesthetic and Deus Ex becomes a wonderful example of the realizable potential of a triple-A production.

Gameplay: 4/5
Aesthetic 4/5
Music: 4/5
Story: 5*/5

Synergy: 5/5

Overall: 90/100


Blocks That Matter: What Happens When Admiration Meets Creativity?
August 24, 2011

Hello all, I’m trying out a more casual reviewing style today with Blocks That Matter

Game: Blocks That Matter
Genre: Indie, Casual, Puzzle

Blocks That Matter is a Casual, Indie, Puzzle game by the two Frenchmen at Swing Swing Submarine. It details the story of the robotic creation of two indie game developers Alexey and Markus (referring to Alexey Pajitnov and Markus Persson, the creators of Tetris and Minecraft respectively) after they had been kidnapped. This robot, named Tetrobot, travels through the various levels by collecting and repositioning matter to get around. What this boils down to is an intelligent mixture of Minecraft, Tetris and Block Dude (the old TI-83 game).

So what does this recipe present to us? What ultimately happens is that Blocks That Matter embraces that aspect of the genre that isn’t afraid to make its puzzles difficult. The controls are, in actuality, extremely simple and all of the mechanics are covered very early in the game. Indeed, the only ability advancement that happens in the last 25 or so levels are that you get the ability to harvest more types of blocks. As a result, the learning curve, in terms of control, is almost minimal. For a puzzle game, this simplistic approach is greatly preferred  because the game should be competing with the difficulty of its puzzles, not the difficulty of its controls. I must say though, the starting control setup was incredibly awkward for me and though you can easily change your controls, I felt that this problem could have been easily remedied with some foresight.

The mechanic itself is a fairly novel idea. In Blocks That Matter, resource blocks are collected by breaking them and reintroduced to the terrain once collected, a la Minecraft. The catch is that they can only be introduced in sets of four, and only if each block is touching another when being reintroduced. As such, the blocks can only be reintroduced in Tetris shapes. When this form restriction is combined with the properties of certain resources (some blocks are affected by gravity and some aren’t, once again a la Minecraft), it makes for interesting puzzles and solutions that require some thinking out of the box. Of course, once you figure out all of this, it comes down to using the right permutation and trick at the right time.

Blocks That Matter, as a result, is a fairly standard puzzle game. It came up with an interesting and creative mechanic, has simple controls, and a strong and balanced difficulty curve. Aesthetically and musically, the game is also simplistic and even slightly repetitive. The aesthetic style definitely makes the game feel casual and approachable, as does the music and everything is instantly recognizable as one thing or another. Overall, the audio and video of the game are well done and encompasses this light and cheerful atmosphere befitting the game and its genre.

It’s not as if the story is especially well done either. Of course, seeing how the characters developed was interesting, and noticing that the two game developers had personalities befitting their genre of choice was cute, but it was just that, cute. The story is inconsequential and though it provides an objective and a goal, it’s not a goal that seems to be particularly important. All in all, the story, dialogue and narrative are strong and creative, but it doesn’t make the game stand out.

So what makes this game different? In my opinion, this game has an iteration of one of the ideal difficulty adjustment mechanisms. In most games, difficulty settings are there to impose arbitrary restraints on the player to make the game “seem” harder. More enemies, for example, is one of those arbitrary limitations.

Blocks That Matter does two things that make its difficulty adjustment very potent. The first is the fact that increased difficulty means optimizing your playstyle. Every level in Blocks That Matter contain a treasure chest and a potential star rating. The treasure chests are usually located in a location off to the side, independent of the main puzzle and are not required to finish the main story. To obtain them though, you need to manage your resources carefully so that you can still complete the level after getting the chest. The star rating is an efficiency rating. You can only get a star rating if you end the level with the appropriate number of blocks in your possession (this number being the most efficient number of remaining blocks).

The second aspect, which is closely related to the first, is that the difficulty level can be adjusted without having to manually adjust it. All it takes to choose one level of difficulty over another is to simply decide not to do something. Because the treasure chests and stars are all part of the levels, if one decides to forego these bonuses while playing that level, there is absolutely nothing to fiddle with.

All told, Blocks That Matter is an interesting game, and for $5 on Steam, it’s well worth the investment. With 40 story levels and 20 bonus levels (unlocked by completing the story with treasure chests and stars) and potentially some free updates, there are more than enough MineTetrisBlock DudeCraft puzzles to keep one occupied for at least several hours, and more if you have a completionist streak like I do. Will it leave a lasting impact on you? No. Will it force you to use your brain for entertainment? Yes. And really, isn’t that all you want from a puzzle game?

Gameplay: 3.5*/5
Aesthetic: 3.5/5
Music: 3.5/5
Story: 4/5
Synergy: 3/5

Overall: 72/100

Assassins Creed 2: Eagle’s Flight
December 12, 2009

I’ve decided not to play through the game, but rather just base this one off of my experience watching the game being played.

Assassins Creed 1 was a gimmick. Assassins Creed 2 is a game. Remember all the good things I mentioned about Assassins Creed 1? Free running, free roaming, free killing. Assassins Creed 2 took these ideas, these undeveloped gimmicks in AC1 and made a game out of it. Improvements were made, linearity and repetition is hidden, cut scenes are now mobile and active. What is interesting is that gameplay is still similar. There is progress from investigation to assassination. And there are few types of investigation. Interrogation, Race, and Tailing are a few of the examples. What makes this game different, and far more endearing, is the method in which the game delivers its content.

Which brings me to the main point of this review – Storyline. The major factor that made Assassins Creed 2 so much more engrossing and entertaining was the storyline. What most game developers don’t understand is that the writing in the game, especially for RPGs, is at least as important as the gameplay itself. Story puts the game in focus. Games aren’t just about the original thinking that was involved behind the mechanic, nor is it about the fluidity of the physics engine or the beauty of the graphics. These are extremely important for a high quality game, but games with a simple mechanic, basic physics engine, and low quality graphics but good story can easily be better than a game with high quality graphics and physics but no story.

For example, we can take a look at a cult classic for anyone who has touched an N64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the light of modern gaming, Ocarina of Time has a basic gameplay mechanic (you have various items and swing your sword), a simple physics engine, and mediocre to low quality graphics. You go around collecting various upgrades to improve your stamina in battle, and to get these items, you go through various dungeons. All of these are, in part, what compels us to play this game. But the main factor, the tipping point for this game, is the story. It’s the tale of a young boy who, brought to a forest of elves, grows into the Hero of Time to save not only the Princess Zelda, but also the entire land of Hyrule. Yes, the story is corny. Yes, the story is overdone and easy to predict. But it’s still a compelling story. It’s this story that gives you a goal, that focuses you on your goal and that allows you to relate to your character. It’s this story that makes you want to get all the tokens in all the temples, that make you feel sad to know that some of these characters are dead.

The power of story is also shown, quite clearly, in the Final Fantasy series. Almost all, if not all, of the final fantasy games have turn based battle systems. This simple gameplay mechanic, added to some variants on magic use and skills, is the singularity of all the FF games. The Fire, Fira, Firaga sets of magic, the white and black mages, the fighter. All of these components of Final Fantasy are universal in all their games. Then, what is it that makes this game so popular to have created 13 separate games? Once again, there is the story behind it. The story, even though highly repetitious, is what brings home the gameplay.

What story does to a game, is it delivers the gameplay to the gamer. It’s the goals that the story provides that motivate you to find new items and kill new targets. It’s the directions that the story points you in that keep you focused on your goal. It’s the dialogue that keeps you entertained and the dialogue that keeps you thinking. The story is what gives you the feeling of accomplishment when you complete a particularly hard objective, and the story is what gives you the hint to help you on your way. Without a story, a game is nothing more than a gimmick, an idea. For Assassins Creed 1, this was the case. There was no coherent story, no correlation between story and gameplay. This is why there was so much repetition and tiresome chores. In Assassins Creed 2, everything comes into perspective. Every action you take is done for a specific short term goal. Human nature is one to enjoy instant gratification. You don’t feel the need to do all these investigation missions if none of them matter. But if, say, you were doing these side quests in order to win a prize at a carnival? That allowed you access to your targets main quarters? That is motivation.

The other reason that story is so important, that is almost abused in the case of Assassins Creed, is anticipation. AC1 and AC2 left off with, in my opinion, come of the gaming world’s most annoying cliffhangers. AC2 is a bit better than AC1 because of the glyphs but nonetheless is an extreme pain. And that is what a good story can do. AC2, for all the fans of AC1, was an immediate purchase. Everyone who had played it would replay the ending, and everyone who hadn’t, would play AC1. By putting Assassins Creed as a trilogy, Ubisoft generated a market of gamers that would purchase all three games if they met even a mediocre standard.

Assassins Creed 2 is, for me, an example of a very well learnt lesson for Ubisoft. Whether or not they developed the first one with the faulty story in mind, it is obvious that they definitely learned how to utilize a storyline for the second game. Everything is coherent and relevant, and the glyphs, especially the glyphs at the end, are enough to leave this game in mind for a good amount of time.

Assassins Creed: An Eaglet Born
December 4, 2009

These past few weeks has brought on a stream of great new games for our eager community. Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead 2, Dragon Age Origins and Assassins Creed 2 are all notably high powered examples for the within-a-week-or-two-of-November-17th release date. My attention is a bit more focused on two of these releases, specifically the ones with 2 in them. Yes. That’s right. L4D2  and Assassins Creed 2 (or as Yahtzee puts it, AssCreed 2). But before we get into reviewing L4D2 (as Dan will do sometime in the future), or AssCreed 2, we take a look at the originals, the games that promoted the name enough to warrant a sequel. Since Dan took L4D, I’m taking up Assassins Creed.

I’m going to get to my point early for this one. Assassins Creed is, at best, a gimmick. It’s an idea mixed with a physics engine and slightly salted with the beginnings of a storyline. It’s Ubisoft’s desire to recreate their success with the Prince of Persia series so they took what made Prince of Persia fun – running across walls, on rooftops, and killing things – and refined it. Add that to currently popular notions of sandbox worlds where everything within the capabilities of the game is permitted, and the idea that you’re a badass assassin who can shank things with ease and you have AssCreed 1. They even took the Prince of Persia gig where dying is no longer dying but desynchronizing, and all that happens is that you probably have to watch some unskippable cutscene again.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad really. Free running, free roaming, free killing is still a bunch of fun and games as you do extravagant jumps across buildings, miss a ledge and grab a window just in time. It’s great to be able to run around town and just pick off all the archers with throwing knives as you leap into the air and stab a templar through the throat with a blade that springs from your ring finger. It’s epic when you’re surrounded by city guards and you kill them off one by one with flashy counter kills. The idea is great. It’s fun, exhilarating, and cool to watch. The problem is that it takes 10~15 hours tops to beat.

No, I don’t mean only 10~15 hours. I mean a grueling 10~15 hours. The reason Assassins Creed is a gimmick instead of a game is because Ubisoft landed themselves with this great idea. They built the mechanics and the physics engine for it. They even incorporated a storyline. But they forgot to add the flair, the diversity.

You are Altair, a masterful assassin who is bested by no other. If life was the disease, you are the cure. And what do you do? You’re running around, doing chores. The game is composed of 9 assassination missions total, and one final boss fight. There are 3 major cities. Each city has 3 districts. Each district has some 8~10 viewpoints, 8~10 civilians to save and 6 information gathering missions. There are 8 types of information gathering missions. Do you begin to understand why its grueling?

To initiate each assassination, you have to do at least three of the six investigation missions. For those of you interested in the story, or in completion, you do all six, save all civilians and climb all the viewpoints. The point with this game, is that it can be done in 3 hours or 3 days. Ubisoft never understood that planning the route, creeping in, and stealth assassinating the target was this game’s main point. Of every hour spent on this game, a good 40 minutes is spent doing menial side quests, saving civilians, punching gypsies and retards in the face and running from guards. Of course, there are also the flags, but let’s face it, no one really gives a damn about 100% completion.

What Assassins Creed does, is it opens up another market of gaming. It breaks the mold of traditional games, not like Braid or N+ does, but to a similar effect. It started the distillation process of good games and new ideas and shows you that new things can be done even with popular things. It attempts to make things work. Of course, they failed a bit on the execution but nonetheless, an attempt was made. I’ll review Assassins Creed 2 soon after I spend the 20 hours beating the game myself (instead of watching a friend play it).