Perceived Value

A strange trend seems to be emerging within the review process for games. If something lacks a large quantity of content, the score goes down regardless of the quality. For example, Dirt: Showdown was given a lukewarm reception because it’s career mode is short.

I completely disagree with that assessment. I found the game to be extremely enjoyable and a decent attempt at a Burnout style game from a company known for realism. The physics felt wonderful and the damage modeling looked amazing.

For $60 though, I could maybe see the point. There isn’t a tremendous amount of stuff to do, but the included modes and cars are furiously entertaining. Then again, I got the game in a Steam sale for $5, so maybe my acceptance of it’s “lack of content” comes down to perceived value.

Gamers exist in a world where the generally accepted $60 price point is not the only way to buy a game. That may have never been the case, but every game launches at $60 at retail whether it should or not.

I know during the PS2/Xbox/GCN era, we saw a bunch of B-games come out at reduced rates. Those titles clearly knew they weren’t going to set the world ablaze and kept their MSRP low to garner more sales.

This led to titles like The Suffering and GUN becoming hits despite not being of the best quality. One of my favorite games from the era, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, was a huge failure due to launching at a full retail price point.

And possibly that “To Be Continued…” ending.

Without the expectation of “$60 thrills,” games like those are allowed to be rated fairly and given a chance to entertain. If Aliens: Colonial Marines didn’t have the audacity to launch at full price, it may have not been as negatively received.

A person’s own perception may shift that idea. Games like Dead Space and Max Payne are fairly short, but have been showered with praise from gamers and critics alike. Everyone seems to think that the general polish and feel of the games is worth their higher launch prices, even if you could get extensive experiences for less.

Bethesda had started talks about this when Skyrim was nearing launch. The director of Elder Scrolls 5, Todd Howard, stated, “I do think industry-wide we would benefit from more games out at $19 or $29. I would try more games. Because I’m not going to try a game for $60. It’s a tough decision.”

That does make sense. Without having a wide range of titles to enjoy, you begin to fall into a rut and give-up on gaming entirely. Without those fresh, different, unique games, one gets jaded to the whole practice.

Valve has done their best to remedy that situation. While Steam sales may not be the best answer, they show that any title can become popular and lucrative if given a better price.

I can even attest to it. While I wouldn’t recommend Dirt: Showdown to serious simulation racer enthusiasts, anyone looking for a rambunctious time slamming cars together will not find a better title.

Yeah, $60 is a bit much, but getting the game for $5 will give you weeks of enjoyment. That lower price lets you feel out whether the game is for you and how the online mode functions. FYI, smashing others online is a blast.

The year is 2015 and we’re still dealing with full retail price. $60 is not going to cut it anymore, especially not when disasters like Batman: Arkham Knight launch on PC and just assume $60 is correct.

I think reviewers should be looking beyond the dollar value when evaluating games. It may be easy to write in that something isn’t worth full price, but don’t let that negatively effect your perception of the game.

A lot of deserving titles will get slammed because their prices are insane. Just because the games market is a broken mess doesn’t mean the title is, too. And to developers; it doesn’t speak negatively of your game to price it at $40.

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Reviewing One’s Experience

So Batman: Arkham Knight is a flaming pile of excrement, right? Well, only if you’re playing the PC version. Otherwise, the game runs fine and looks great. Should those negative review scores be revised, then? When WB and Iron Galaxy squash all the bugs, should we demand critics re-evaluate the game?

With this weeks latest controversy over a game release, I began thinking about an old idea of mine. When does objective criticism and personal experience become a factor in a game review? A game cannot cater to every specific customer at once, but we see fans demanding such a thing from writers.

The constant stream of, “No way this game is a 5,” and “Too much batmobile. 7/10,” are just pathetic. At the same time, maybe we should be seeing more objective takes on current games.

While I used to be all about leaving personal experience out of the equation, I’ve shifted my viewpoint in more recent times. Unless a game has actual game breaking bugs (Which Arkham Knight does on PC), you can’t truly call it a bad game. If it makes even one person happy, then it has not failed.

Even made me question humanity. I’d call that a win.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of critically panned games. Binary Domain is a brilliant shooter, but most reviewers couldn’t be assed with it. Long Live the Queen is a charming text-based adventure, but critics didn’t find a lot to love. Goat Simulator is also quite shat on, but I love how hilariously stupid it can be.

My friend is also quite fond of WWE 2k15 on PS4. We both agree the game is a horrible, broken mess, but the glitches produce some of the most outrageous moments we’ve had in a long time. There isn’t another game out there where Sting can do a split in mid-air while Hogan gets stuck inside the ropes.

I’m getting tired of seeing people complain about review scores, as well. If someone personally feels that a game should be rated a 5, you don’t have any right to refute them. You don’t have to agree, but to shout that they are wrong is ludicrous.

The 10 point scale for reviewing has long been abused. Critics will give average games a 7 and that tilts the scale in a negative way. Now anything below a 7 isn’t worth looking at, which means that 7 is actually 5 and 5 then becomes something like a 3.

I believe that has more to do with how ingrained school grading has become in society, but it still leads to a misconception about the quality of a game. It also does nothing to inform a reader if the game is any fun.

I remember when GamePro still existed. They used to grade games in 4 different fields; Graphics, Sound, Control and Fun Factor. A game could get low marks in the first three, but Fun Factor was ultimately what most people were curious about.

Ah, memories.

Even if you end up hating a game after grinding away at it, the fun you had when you first popped it in should be worth it. If you live your life regretting the decisions you make and looking to strangers online for confirmation, you’re doing something wrong with your life.

What truly tipped in into this line of thinking was the end of 2011. I was eagerly waiting for games like Uncharted 3, Saints Row: The Third and Duke Nukem Forever. Those all quickly became my least favorite from their respective franchises, but it also taught me a thing about believing in reviews online.

At the end of the day, the only person who will know you best is yourself. You cannot rely on someone’s opinion when making a purchase. You should obviously reference a review to gauge any glaring errors in playability, but some person who has never met you is not a good indicator of something you may like.

Why should I care if some random jerk thinks my favorite game is trash? Unless he is threatening game developers or personally assaulting my family, I don’t know why his thoughts should impact mine. I like the damn game and that is that.

This may be a bit sidetracked, but I just wish people would learn to use reviews for what they are; opinionated viewpoints. They are one person’s account of how they saw the game. If you typically agree with that person, then the review might just be for you.

Yeah; this guy.

So at the end of the day, I believe personal experience should weigh more in a review score. Instead of trying to remove any trace of humanity from a piece, inject more of your own belief into it.

As indie game writer Rob Marrow told me, “Of course I’m bias. I don’t like this specific type of game.” You can’t always get what you want. Learn to deal with that.

Batman is a Jerk…

Gaming has been host to plenty of superheroes. For the most part, their games have been either entertaining or mildly annoying. Batman has produced a couple of pretty good hits, but his big turnaround happened with the Batman: Arkham series. Traveler’s Tales, developers behind the Lego games, must have never got the memo.

When I started off with Lego Batman 2, I didn’t really know what to expect. I gave up the Lego games because they were all essentially the same. I gave this a shot because a friend of mine came over and urged me to play it. Well, not only is Lego Batman 2 a fairly mundane and annoying game, but the story ruins it.

For starters, Superman makes absolutely no sense in regards to the game. There are numerous puzzles where Batman and Robin will be trapped on the other side of a pit of fire, yet Superman cannot fly them across.

Traveler’s Tales has never been at the absolute cusp of quality, but its games have had charm to spare and plenty of low-pressure fun. Lego Batman 2, though, reverses that. Batman is portrayed as a headstrong blowhard and Superman is a bumbling idiot. Poor Robin has to deal with these people and you wonder why he hasn’t quit yet.

There is one instance early on in the game where Batman throws Robin off of a platform and jumps after him. They are pretty much dead at this point, but then Superman sweeps in. Batman has no regard for Robin’s wellbeing and ends up looking like a jerk.

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After that level, Batman learns that The Joker and Lex Luthor are planning on using Kryptonite to power some gun that disintegrates objects. Robin knows this is Superman’s weakness and tries to persuade Batman to tell him. Batman yells about how they aren’t calling Superman and ends up looking selfish. Some kind of hero, right?

To make matters worse, the rest of the Justice League are only present for two levels. Their role in the plotline is so contrived and ham-fisted that I wonder why Traveler’s Tales even bothered. I understand that having all these characters gives the game a greater longevity, but when their powers end up replacing all of Batman’s suits, you wonder why they weren’t called in sooner.

That’s my chief problem with this game: necessity. I fully understand that no game is ever a required part of being alive, but what exactly does Lego Batman 2 provide over its predecessor? A large, Lego-fied Gotham City isn’t enough to keep me going.

There are so many instances of lazy writing that I don’t even know where to begin. One of the very first levels has you building Robin’s helicopter so that you can chase Joker. You manage that and Batman ends up almost falling into the ocean. Well, he thankfully calls his own jet in at the last second. Wait, why didn’t he do that to begin with?

Later, Batman and Superman somehow trade places to fool Joker and Lex Luthor into revealing their plan. The plot works and the two heroes then give chase to the villains. But wait, The Joker used Kryptonite to weaken Superman, who ends up being crushed by an anvil when he’s Batman. Shouldn’t he be dead?

The final nail in the coffin is how the last boss is defeated. Batman calls down a laser from space with the help of the Justice League. A giant robot is rampaging throughout Gotham and Batman waits until the very last second to utilize his laser … which could have ended the conflict immediately … and was extremely easy to acquire.

Really, what does this all say about the actual gameplay segments? Well, with Superman in tow, why are there segments where he is arbitrarily disabled? Superman cannot walk through electricity. I guess it must be made of Kryptonite. Hell, the Man of Steel can’t even swim!

Then you have the Justice League member, Cyborg, who can use Superman’s laser eye technique. Well, that’s just wonderful. Why bother with Superman? Oh, he can fly. Well, so can Wonder Woman and Green Lantern!

Lego Batman 2 is so dedicated to stuffing the roster full of characters that it forgets that these heroes should have individuality. All the villains manage to have distinct battles, so why can’t the heroes have some form of differentiation?

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Then the floaty controls come into play and make you wonder why the entire thing couldn’t just be built around Superman. I know that an already easy game would be practically on auto-pilot at that point, but I’m so sick of backtracking with Robin’s stupid hamster ball thing when Superman can just pick him up.

I will say that the co-op works surprisingly well. For once, you aren’t locked to a single screen. The game has some weird split that tries to morph the screen based on a character’s position in the room, but it beats being confined to a small box. It also makes the other player envious that he can’t fly!

On the whole, I do not like Lego Batman 2. It tries very hard to provide a different world for a Lego game, but sticks to artificial puzzle challenge to lengthen the game. When the universe of the game contradicts the powers of its heroes, you know something is wrong.

Freedom: What’s The Whole Story, Again?

Freedom is something we all strive to obtain. Whether it is freedom from our parents, freedom from paying bills or even just psychological freedom, most humans take great efforts to be on their own. The topic, alone, is ripe with opportunities for deep storytelling. Why is it, then, that most open-world games lack any kind of proper narrative?

I’ve played a huge chunk of the free roaming titles out there; Assassin’s Creed, Fallout 3, Oblivion, Dead Rising, inFamous, Prototype, Red Faction: Guerilla, Grand Theft Auto 3/4. I’ve enjoyed some more than others, but I almost never have any idea about what is going on.

Assassin’s Creed is one of the few to include a very thought-provoking story. Other than that, though, I really have no idea what the “vault” is or how the hell Alex Mercer created the demon within. Even when cutscenes are sprinkled in the mix, I still can’t figure out what’s happening.

The game that started this craze, Grand Theft Auto 3, doesn’t even really have a coherent plotline. It begins with a failed bank robbery and the main character getting gunned down. He then turns to the mob to find the girl who betrayed him and I get lost. How do you go from the mob to random drug dealers and then back?

Grand Theft Auto 4 made huge strides in the presentation of a narrative, but even that failed due to rudimentary mission structure. Niko Bellic would often talk about how he didn’t like killing people and that he needed more money to live, but the missions would make you murder upwards of 100 bad guys and give payouts of around $40,000. Why would you even continue at that point?

Red Faction: Guerilla starts off as a fairly interesting take on terrorist actions, but then it devolves into something involving native Martians and how some woman was hiding amongst the Red Faction for years. I don’t even know the characters names, but the writers were definitely pulling at threads when they through that mid-game twist into the mix.

inFamous takes the cake for the worst story, however. Not only do I have no idea whom Sasha is, but the whole duality system the game plays up with differing moralities amounts to nothing. Regardless of what action you pick, the outcome of every event is the same. If you stop the train or blow it up, everyone hates you. If you save the group of people or the single person, your girl friend dies. What is the purpose of choice, then?

Easily the best plot line I’ve seen in any of these games comes from Assassin’s Creed 2. While there are some bits that I don’t understand (mainly the entire middle segment), the way the game follows Ezio’s growth from a headstrong young adult to a combat hardened assassin is fairly breath taking. Not only is it epic in scope, but it almost acts as a character study. Hell, it even brings to light how people take advantage of their every day possessions (such as family).

I’m not sure what the problem is with writing a story for open-world games. Maybe it has to do with player freedom? The Zelda series still offers a fairly in-depth plot, but allows players to explore the world at will. Maybe it’s with character customization? If that’s the case, then how do you explain Rainbow Six: Vegas 2? (Even if that plot has little cohesion).

Where I think the problem lies is with the increasing trend of shooters becoming the dominant genre in the industry. Everyone sees that Call of Duty sells by the bucket load, so developers are trying their best to offer different gameplay experiences first before worrying about plot lines. It shows with linear games, too.

Rockstar had to restrict the freedom of players for L.A. Noire’s story to even work. That just goes to show you how far scripted events and plotting can go to make a narrative effective. You don’t often see films taking non-linear paths, but they usually don’t work (Crash is a prime example).

Do I have any solutions to the problem? I think hiring more unknown writers would do the trick. Recently, F.E.A.R. 3 came out and boasted a script helmed by John Carpenter. It stands as one of the worst examples of story in a videogame that I’ve ever played through. If you give some lesser known person the ability to weave a tale, I’m sure they would try their best to make it special.

My other solution would be to completely strip plot out of free-roam games, though that seems incredibly drastic. Not every single title in the genre is awful (especially not Assassin’s Creed), but developers just seem to start off with bangs and then fizzle out over the course of the game.

Whatever the future holds for soapbox/free roam/open-world games, I’m honestly not very eager to keep going. I like sitting down and getting my mind wrapped around the experience. It’s hard to keep me intrigued when the most introspective and in-depth thing going on is an explosion.

DEMOlition – F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn

FEAR 2 Logo

Today’s game is F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn. To give some background, Monolith released F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin last year to lukewarm critical response and not much fan reaction (at least from what I heard of the game). F.E.A.R. 2 was a follow-up to their critically acclaimed F.E.A.R. from 2005 (which also happens to be one of my favorite PC shooters).

My personal opinion on F.E.A.R. 2 (God I hate acronyms) was simple: Hate. I found the game too dumbed down and easy for my tastes. The level design was too bright to illicit any kind of frightening reaction other than a gut response to something randomly popping in your face. The A.I. was so stupid (compared to the first game which has some of the best A.I. around), the guns lost their visceral edge (they no longer produced all the intense smoke effects from the first game) and the level design was just the generic scare tactic style that Monolith overused in the first game (where random things pop out at you).

Well, wouldn’t you be surprised to hear that I actually enjoyed this demo of the new DLC expansion? Before I start delving into the good stuff (gameplay), let me set up how the demo starts. The game begins with an extremely grainy and otherwise unimpressive intro that looks almost exactly like the intro to the first game (making me think this was a remake).

This demo shows the main villain of the first game (he may also be in the second, I never cared to beat it) spouting out some nonsense about how you can free him. After about a minute (and a short little clip of your character doing some cool things), your character stands up from some explosion (possibly the end of F.E.A.R. 2).

This is where I immediately began to feel the presence of F.E.A.R (no pun intended). The first game had such a dark and atmospheric setting about the game that you always wondered what would happen around each corner. This DLC pack seems to fall back on that design and makes your awareness limited to what you can see with your flashlight (which, thankfully, doesn’t die on you).

The surroundings are laid out in a manner similar to the first game, which means they are built like an office building. It was definitely good to feel like I was playing a direct continuation of the first game instead of a sequel that forgot where its roots were.

Soon after moving a bit, you fall down through the ceiling and are confronted with your first enemy. Being without weapon, you have to melee him and take his crappy pistol. I was a little confused as far as button placement went, but melee ended up being mapped to B (just like Halo), so it wasn’t hard to set myself to one control scheme.

The only problem with melee being B is that the rest of the controls don’t follow Halo standards (or even Call of Duty or Battlefield, for that matter). When you pick up the pistol, you know RT is fire, but switching weapons is relegated to LB, with RB being grenade and LT being iron-sights (zoom). This is one of the places where I felt a bit disappointed in the demo. There is no option to bind your own controls, so you are left with a scheme that seems to be esoteric to Monolith games.

Even so, when you fire off a round with the pistol, the guns instantly feel familiar. F.E.A.R. 2 forgot about making their gunplay as impressive looking as it was handling, but Reborn doesn’t make the same mistake. Bullets impact with a splash of blood and the walls will crater when shot. Everything is definitely great looking in terms of technical value, so your guns feel heavy and realistic (just like in the first game). Sometimes your shots don’t seem to connect, though, so that does feel strange when you are missing your mark, but have a dead reticule on the enemy.

When you kill your next soldier and round another corner, the game pops-up to remind you of F.E.A.R.’s patented slow-mo ability. This ability never seemed to bother me in the original (often getting me out of ridiculous jams), but it definitely makes the combat extremely easy in this demo. Even on hardest, popping on slow-mo for 10 seconds can allow you to clear a room of 5 people.

The recharge timer for this slow-mo has been changed from the first game (probably in the second, I just can’t remember). It seems to charge a bit faster, meaning you will always have it in a rough spot. It’s just too bad the A.I. still can’t match the quality of the first. It outpaces vanilla F.E.A.R. 2, though. While I was sitting in a corner and picking off guys, I started dying randomly and turned to see a soldier behind me. Me somehow worked his way out of the scuffle and began to take me out, which is definitely neat.

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A.I. Tactics like cover were missing in F.E.A.R. 2, but are back in Reborn.

As for how to deal with sneaky soldiers, this demo gives you a small bit of the arsenal available in the final DLC. Along to the pistol, you are given a rather simple SMG, 3 grenade types (being proximity, frag and flame), a shotgun and a nail-gun. Yes, a freakin nail-gun. Plugging enemies in the head is so intensely satisfying that I just relied solely on this for the rest of the demo (though it does come a bit towards the end).

As for the rest of the A.I., they just kind of sit around and take your bullets. It’s not like killing them isn’t fun (especially with particle effects flying about), but challenge is not something F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn offers. What it lacks in difficulty, it makes up for with its set pieces.

After killing a few generic grunts, you jump down another level to a sniper waiting (which is easily killed by slow-mo shots) and some tank like people. These tanks don’t pose much of a threat, but waiting for them to turn corners is pointless. You are in a small area that is made of wooden walls, so the tanks just kind of bust through them. It definitely leads to some, “OH S@&^!” moments and the game feels more like it is trying to set up impressive battles like the first game.

The demo closes with you sliding down an office building, but making careful jumps from desk to ceiling pillar so as not to die. It’s very hectic and the camera is never straight, so you are always being cautious with your jumps. This also hints back to the first game, where most of the puzzles were based on moving your character instead of trying to flip a switch and press-on.

In the end, I felt rather amused and happy with the demo. F.E.A.R. 2 put a bad taste in my mouth, but this DLC seems to be correcting a lot of the issues the original title had. While the A.I. might not be up to F.E.A.R.’s level and the guns still aren’t perfect, at least Monolith realized that their level design was lacking. Simply darkening the game and going back to basics has done a lot in making me get sucked into the game world, so I commend them for that.

If you played F.E.A.R. 2 and enjoyed it, you will definitely be pleased with Reborn. The DLC should be releasing on September 3rd (Source), though no price is announced (I say expect 800 MS Points/$10 PSN). While the pack only comes with 4 levels, having them as good as the demo was would make for an amazing little download. I may actually want to finish F.E.A.R. 2 and get this pack, myself, that how much I enjoyed it.