Tales of a Scorched Earth

A Love/Hate Relationship with Video Games.

Balance in God of War Ascension’s “The Trial of Archimedes”


Before the endgame of God of War: Ascension, there is a sequence called “The Trial of Archimedes” that received an overwhelming amount of negative attention since the game’s release last month. The largest criticism is that it is the most difficult sequence in the game – or of any game in the series, depending on who you’re reading. On the surface, this sequence is no different than any of the other arduous gauntlets in the series, where waves of monsters are launched against the player in a confined space that must be defeated before proceeding. Using an elevator platform to establish the limits of the battlefield, the player ascends three levels and on each level are faced with a new mixed group of monsters of varying strength.

Although God of War is not known for its difficulty on Easy to Hard modes, cries of “unfair” and “unbalanced” have been heard from players who are just attempting Normal and feeling the sting of its unusually steep increase of difficulty near the end of the game1. The source of this hostile response can be categorized into four main points:

  1. Difficulty Curve: Up until “The Trial of Archimedes”, the game had been as consistent as previous God of War games in the way it distributes challenge and follows it with recuperative effects (Health and Magic orb chests), or Auto-Save checkpoints after major encounters. “The Trial of Archimedes” does neither, and provides no warning that this difficulty spike is coming. Most infuriatingly, a death at any point means starting the entire Trial from the beginning. As a result, this encounter feels incredibly punishing.
  2. Encounter Design and Progression: The first wave of the Trial is the hardest, and for moderately skilled players will likely take most of the player’s health bar (and patience) to complete. With no regenerative health orbs, this leaves the player with two choices: learn the encounter to complete the first wave without being hit, or assume that the rest of the waves are easier and won’t take as much health (a poor assumption!). In the end this becomes a moot point due to the sudden requirement for the player to watch their technique, which leads us to…
  3. Technique: As noted above, the game is generally forgiving of moderately skilled players and allows them to be sloppy and reckless in their combat. The jokes about “squarepushing” in God of War are founded, as without too much effort you can beat each game in the series on Normal by doing just that. However, for the first time in a God of War game, Ascension makes technique a prerequisite for its tougher challenges. Spamming quick attacks doesn’t work, nor does switching to overpowered weapons (such as the Cestus in God of War III). Magic attacks do a fair amount of area damage, but Magic is limited to a maximum of four uses and there are only two attacks that have good range (The Hades attack, for example, is far better as a high damage area of effect spell). Not to mention that both of them require a significant amount of orb upgrades to access. Without any advance planning, the player has only the Blades of Chaos to build up the Rage meter with their element of choice for more powerful melee attacks. Therefore, the best approach is to hit, block and if the player is quick enough, parry, on all melee attacks. Rolling is no longer an effective strategy in this arena. Taking no damage means that the rage meter will increase faster and the player can unleash stronger melee attacks, interspersed with any available Magic attacks. For the unprepared player, this is definitely easier said than done.
  4. Use of Artifacts: While the use of the artifacts Kratos finds during the course of the game should probably fall under “Technique”, it has been considered separately because of the game’s training of the player to use them as puzzle solutions. Ascension certainly apprises the player that they can be used during combat, but the consistency in enemy encounters ensures they never feel compelled to even experiment. Both The Amulet of Uroboros and the Oath Stone of Orkos are great at managing large enemies and mobs, but unless the player has been doing this all along they will have trouble integrating them into combat, especially under pressure. Furthermore, to be of any real use they must be upgraded to their respective maximum levels, which the player has not necessarily been doing either.

Enough attention was brought to the difficulty of “The Trial of Archimedes” that the developers of Ascension acknowledged it would be addressed in an upcoming patch2. To get a feel for the original difficulty, I did not patch the game and attempted the sequence in my ongoing game on “Normal”. The following represents a brief critique of “The Trial of Archimedes”, and the efficacy Sony Santa Monica’s implemented play balancing solution.

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  1. Read pretty much any comments section on video game fan sites, NeoGAF or GameFAQs for people complaining about the difficulty near the game’s release. Also, I’m pretty sure this video is about it. For more fun, read the people criticising the people complaining about the difficulty! This community is ridiculous.
  2. Game director Todd Papy assured fans in a tweet only a day after the game’s release that the encounter would be patched.

New wordpress install…complete

I can’t believe I got WordPress 3.x working, the last 8 years of archives cleanly moved across, and no more dead links than when I made the jump from MT to WordPress back in the summer of 2008.

This is what happens when one has complete control over their web server, yet no foresight and uses MySQL 4 instead of MySQL 5 when setting up the original install back in 2008. I’d been putting off this mess of going from WP 2.8.x to 3.x for at least a year.

Everything seems to be working, so…updates soon!

The Whip Asserts Itself in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The Combat Cross has many uses. For example, stabbing vampires in the heart.

The biggest mistake Mecurysteam made with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was allowing Konami to brand their half-finished project as a Castlevania game. Without the expectations packaged with such a legendary series, the game could have easily survived on its own and potentially achieved higher regard with the reviewers that continue to shamelessly yearn for another Symphony of the Night1. Instead, it is viewed as an attempt to reinvigorate an aging series by capitalizing on recent trends in third person action games2. Indeed, Lords of Shadow borrowed liberally from its immediate peers only to be received as another Dante’s Inferno: a pretender to God of War‘s gratuitous throne. Yet the meaningless spectacle of the recent God of War III only confirmed the series as caricature of the third-person action game.

So Lords of Shadow has something to prove, as Mercurysteam isn’t in the same fortunate position of coasting on the success of past efforts. Lords of Shadow borrows the right parts of the action games that inspired it, and assembles a remarkable genre blend that can be appreciated on its own merits. The game provides an engaging variation on third-person melee combat requiring the development of player skill over the course of the game. Even the positive reviews that laud the reimagining of such an iconic series do a poor job of conveying what makes this video game such an accomplishment. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will appear as an attractive also-ran, but it is a game that demands examination to fully appreciate its competency within the genre. And those who are willing to submit to its initial allure will play one of the best releases of 2010.

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  1. In fact, at E3 2009 it was simply called “Lords of Shadow“, with no Castlevania branding, to prevent it from overshadowing Castlevania: Judgement for the Wii. Right now it sits with a respectable average metacritic score of 83% for Xbox 360, and 85% for PS3.
  2. GamesRadar goes so far to suggest that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will “help this series rise from its grave” in their review

Besting Cesar: Examining Shank’s final fight

Shank vs. Cesar

Further to my review of Shank over at Rules of the Game, I wanted to examine the fight with Cesar, the man responsible for the murder of Shank’s girlfriend and the last encounter of the game. It stuck in my mind as something particularly interesting about Shank, in the way this fight feigns openness for the player’s attack strategy to make it seem different from the rest of the game. It is set up to be the “true” culmination of the skills learned in Shank, as if the previous boss encounters were merely warmups. Even though this encounter is the only thing I found interesting about Shank, it’s not something that would have been very useful in the middle of a review.

I said in my review that the traditional boss fight is challenging in the way it represents the culmination of each set of encounters at the end of a given “chapter” or “level” of a game. The tactics for each boss fight should be no surprise, as they should collect the skills developed during the course of the game. However, the challenge of a boss fight is removed when “tactics” become prescriptive of player action: whether it is requiring a particular attack to be used, or a weapon or ability that was obtained during the course of the preceding level. In the interest of player accessibility, the prescriptive boss fight is the easiest to grasp without a full understanding of the combat system. This was the approach that Klei Entertainment took with most of their boss characters in Shank.

In Shank’s fight with Cesar, there are two main differences from other boss encounters that should be evident to the observant player. Firstly, it is a fair fight. While he is a little bit taller, the size and appearance of Cesar is consistent with Shank and the goon characters that have already been faced. He is equipped with a sword, two pistols, and a knife. Secondly, it is not immediately apparent that a special activity must be performed as in the other boss encounters. That is, in the fight with Cesar the player is never explicity told to perform a one-button act to deal damage once the boss character is stunned by regular hits.

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Shank review at Rules of the Game

I got a review copy a few weeks ago for Shank, a beat ‘em up from Klei Entertainment. I’d been following this game since the original announcement, and after seeing the initial demonstration videos I was pretty fired up for what appeared to be a throwback to some of my favorite games from the 16-bit generation of consoles. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed quite unceremoniously:

Shank is overconfidence in a borrowed design that is only partially understood. It is a one-button brawler that adds depth in the most unnecessary of areas for a video game of this genre: story. In all favorable reviews, comparisons list off the beat ‘em ups that came before it – whether it’s the gun and swordplay of Devil May Cry or the rudimentary street fighting of Streets of Rage – as if Shank belongs in their company. And perhaps it was inspired by these titles, but inspiration is very different from execution.

Read the rest over at Rules of the Game.

Case Zero: An Introduction to Dead Rising 2

Welcome back.

Around this time last year, I complained that the trial version of Batman: Arkham Asylum was a poorly constructed demonstration of the final game, and lamented the days when demos were complete pieces of a larger game that allowed the player to make an educated decision on a purchase. Last week, Capcom released Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, a stand-alone introduction to Dead Rising 2. It is a mission – or “Case” as they were called in the original game – that takes place in the backwater town of Still Creek. Dead Rising 2 will be a multiplatform launch, so the exclusivity of Dead Rising 2: Case Zero on the Xbox 360 appears to be a token sign of loyalty to those that made the original so successful. The Prestige Points statistics levelling system returns, so that any character built in Case Zero can be carried across to the new game, as long as it is purchased for the Xbox 360. Case Zero costs 400 MS points, or around $5 US. Essentially, it is a pay-to-play demo.

On its surface, the intent of Case Zero is to explain how main character Chuck Greene gets to Fortune City, the setting for Dead Rising 2. Establishing Chuck’s character and his background, we are introduced to his situation and what got him there. However, the story in Case Zero isn’t set up as a “prequel”, proper. That is, the ending of the mission in Case Zero is Chuck Greene and his daughter driving to Fortune City. Anything could have happened before that; what happens in Case Zero isn’t essential to the story. Instead, Chuck’s detour in Still Creek is more apt as an introduction to developer Blue Castle Games’ rendition of the Dead Rising universe and the game’s mechanics. In this regard, Case Zero is one of the best video game demonstrations I have ever played.

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Flotilla review at Rules of the Game

A few months ago, I was invited to join Rules of the Game, a project dedicated to the methodical review and critique of video games. Thanks to Editor-in-Chief and Founder Simon Ferrari for giving me a reason to keep my word count under control.

My first review went online today, of the independently developed Flotilla. From the review:

Flotilla is a game about capital ship battles in space, with the lighthearted mood and pacing of Shrapnel Games’ Weird Worlds series. Pirate chickens, space pigs, and other oddities spring up in your journey across the galaxy in search of things to fight and spaceship parts to salvage. Developed by the creators of Gravity Bone, Flotilla is a more traditional game in that it imitates the recognizable three-dimensional space combat of Homeworld. While exhibiting some appreciation for the details in maneuvers that would be performed in capital ship battles, the combat’s lack of depth and limited options for ship customization detract from what could be a significant addition to the strategy genre. Instead, Flotilla leaves one wondering when a developer brave enough to combine and tune every exciting, disparate concept in strategy game development will create a work to revitalize the genre.

Read the rest at Rules of the Game.

Dante’s Inferno: The Wretched

Dante goes to Hell.

Dante: “Where are the others? Why aren’t the other damned down here with me?”
Lucifer: “This isn’t their Hell, Dante. It’s yours.”
– from Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno is a half-hearted action game that gets caught up in its own spectacle. The offensive content of this video game is enough to repulse the casual observer, but those that actually play it will find its sins go far deeper: it is a video game that makes its own existence unnecessary with a combat system wrought by designers who have learned nothing about action games in the last five years. The result is an artifact that only serves as another reason why video game enthusiasts continue to bleat loudly and thump their chest while struggling to justify the cultural legitimacy of video games. Dante’s Inferno is a game that sought and received a lot of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Electronic Arts’ campaign to promote the game was an embarrassing display, but fascinating in how it adapted to the response of the video game community. And yet the worst criticism levelled at the actual game upon its release was that it was a poor imitation of God of War, while glossing over the general offensiveness of the content – both visual and ludic – in what can only be labelled as acts of sloth. Dante’s Inferno is a mark upon the rich history of video games that reveals more failures than successes, but still manages to recognize the most noble of attempts. However, Dante’s Inferno has no hope of being a work as accessible or impactful as the ones that are the subject of so many retrospectives. Dante’s Inferno will be remembered, but not for the reasons Visceral Entertainment had hoped.

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Darksiders: Uncanny

This is War. He has a big sword. It has a name. It is Chaoseater.

Darksiders is a wave of nostalgia. It is playing A Link to the Past (1991) on a Super Nintendo console borrowed from a friend away for summer vacation. It is the limited edition comic book with holofoil cover that never existed; in the game are the characters that do battle on these imaginary pages. Darksiders is what happens when a comic book artist has something to say about a video game’s design. The art direction of Darksiders provides a solid foundation for this original setting, where a generous layer of grunge and oversized pauldrons was applied to a formula so revered by video game culture it has become all but untouchable. This aesthetic becomes one of the strongest points of Darksiders, as it is so convincing that the flagrant plagiarism happening underneath can be overlooked. This is not mere homage; the team at Vigil Games has created a video game. The intent of the game’s design is clear from the beginning, and like the adventure it contains, does not deviate from this prescribed pathway. Darksiders has scope and it has goals, but it does not over-reach. The mechanics are inviting and do not ask for anything but the player’s attention. Darksiders demands to be played.

Darksiders has been criticized mainly for its lack of originality; it seems pointing out an obvious trait of video games in general is cause enough for dismissal. The negative commentary claims everything Darksiders has to offer has been done previously – and better – elsewhere. The most popular example being the one-button finishing moves and gratuitous vivisections of the God of War series. However, when playing Darksiders there should really be only one series of video games that comes to mind: The Legend of Zelda. And this should come as no surprise, as it was always the intent of Darksiders Creative Director and comic book artist Joe Madureira1. Typical for the reception of such an endeavor, Darksiders was the victim of offhanded associations from people who didn’t play the game, or worse – they weren’t paying attention while they played it2.

The individuals that purport to dictate taste through these indolent opinions are propagating a disease within video game culture, one that results in some offensive double-speak regarding the advancement and future of the industry. They want innovation, but they don’t want anything too different. They complain about formulas and sequels, yet express deep reverence for a character or game design as old as video games. No one can do platforming like Mario, or solve puzzles like Link in The Legend of Zelda. These memories are untouchable, and the games that inspired them incorruptible3. By adopting this philosophy, the people who play these games with veneration overflowing in their hearts are limiting themselves to the regurgitations of the same formula, made by the same people, to the hollow ringing of cash registers. And in spite of it all, there is never a shortage of criticism when the big studios keep producing these duplicates. This feedback loop is the unfortunate ecosystem of the video game industry.

For the first half of Darksiders, the plagiarism is so obvious that it becomes a running gag as to see which tool will be received in each dungeon. One dungeon had hard to reach switches, which were obvious call signs for a boomerang. Only in Darksiders it’s called a “Crossblade.” The hook shot? It’s been suitably grittied up as the “Abyssal Chain.” Despite this overt imitation, these items were still fashioned to reflect the world of Darksiders. It also calls into question the Zelda series itself: aren’t the recent installments of the series essentially a facsimile of every Zelda game ever made? What Darksiders has going for it is that it isn’t a Zelda game. The genre bullshit can be cast aside because there is no genreDarksiders is copying a game that has been in a genre of its own since its creation. Darksiders works because it is similarly consistent in its approach. It applies a formula that is obvious from the start and sticks with it for the entirety of the game. As a result there are no surprises, and the disappointments are only from attempting to assign attributes to the game it was never meant to have.

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  1. In a Q&A with Eurogamer, Joe Madureira identifies the Zelda series as the primary influence for Darksiders, with references to A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. He mentioned this in numerous preview articles as well, dating back to the game’s first reveal at E3 2007.
  2. Darksiders has an 82% average on Metacritic for the XBox 360 and PS3 versions. Based on this score, it’s obvious some reviewers gave the game a chance. However, very little analysis has been done as to how and why it succeeds without saying “it’s just plain good.” My favorite quote was from the now defunct Play Magazine’s 100% review which was so banally summarized as: “If there ever there was a pure gamer’s game, Darksiders is it.” Even though it was positive, the review did nothing to convince me of how the game succeeded. Obviously my aim was to correct that with this essay.
  3. One only needs to remember the fan reaction when Nintendo announced that Retro Studios was turning Metroid into a first person shooter. And now it’s the Citizen Kane of video games!

Ghostbusters The Video Game: Nostalgia is a Dangerous Weapon

Just wait until they get the bill THIS time.

Including the New York Public Library as a playable mission in the demo1 should have been a dead giveaway. As one of the signature setpieces in the film Ghostbusters, allowing players to take part in a second trip to this locale with familiar faces in tow, is essentially what Ghostbusters: The Video Game entails. It collects a series of touchstones for players to reminisce about, while attempting to tell a new story. Except the story reclaims entire sections of the film and its sequel, patching together plot points, locations and famous adversaries in what amounts to playing inside a world of Ghostbusters: Greatest Hits. You are constantly harangued by Walter Peck and the new Paranormal Contract Oversight Committee. You have to fight the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man (again). You get to destroy the Sedgewick Hotel (again). About the only thing interesting is the encounter with Ivo Shandor, the Architect of Dana Barrett’s apartment building from the first film, who remained a legend that was never really explored. In Ghostbusters: The Video Game, you discover how obsessed with the Gozerian cult he really was, as the Ghosbusters slowly uncover a plot designed by Shandor years ago, to bring about the coming of The Destroyer.

This brief incursion into Ghostbusters lore comes too late in the game, and it’s frustratingly obvious that the previous missions were filler to relive everyone’s favorite moments from the films. But as you play the game, its intentions are clear: this is not meant to be a video game as much as it is intended to be those Greatest Hits, as it was not designed for an audience who plays video games. Rather, it was created to placate fans of the movies that also happen to play video games.

As a result, both Terminal Reality and Atari are banking on this brand recognition to give the game a passing grade. Any critic or reviewer that has been paying attention over the last eight years would see this game for what it is: old, outdated, unnecessary. So why the relatively high scores2, respectable sales performance3 and praise as wistful recollections? The answer is simple: Nostalgia is a dangerous weapon used to great effect in the video game industry. It will beat people senseless – especially in a hobby that helped many people through their childhoods.

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  1. Ghostbusters: The Video Game continues the assault on Nostalgia”, July 2009.
  2. Metacritic shows Ghostbusters: The Video Game with a 78% average for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 versions, which should be considered the “complete” versions (the PC port didn’t have multiplayer). The Playstation 2 and Wii versions (ported by Red Fly Studios) has an average of 64% and 76%, respectively. The mobile versions (Nintendo DS and PSP) are the pariahs of the group with their 55% average.
  3. In July 2009, it was reported that Ghostbusters: The Video Game sold over one million units worldwide, across all platforms, within the first month of release. This tapered off very quickly, of course.
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