Entertaining Peery: The Walking Dead by Telltale Games

August 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have an axe, in the woods, but I ain’t here for wood.

Readers of this blog probably know we love The Walking Dead. So without further ado here is the video game adaptation review.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a great example of what can happen if a developer revives one of video games’ long neglected genre: the adventure game. My own PC gaming history begins with Sierra Online’s catalog of adventure that included favorites such as King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Hero’s Quest, Phantasmagoria, and who can forget Leisure Suit Larry.

Different from what would become more traditional RPGs where the player creates the details of their avatar, adventure games set the back-story and characters that the player would guide through the story. Some may argue that it diminishes player experience, but it gives designers the ability to craft a more intimate story tied to the characters. To this end, there have even been some attempts to root a specific common back-story to “custom” player avatars in recent games such as Dragon Age and Fallout 3.

The Walking Dead has players taking the role of Lee Everett, a UGA professor convicted of murdering a politician that was sleeping with his wife. The murder may or may not have been in self-defense. In a twist of fate, Lee is given a second chance on life by the outbreak of Walkers.

Almost immediately the player meets the little girl Clementine, who by circumstances becomes Lee’s ward. She becomes the moral compass by which most of Lee’s actions are judged by the game’s systems.  Along the way, Lee meets with Hershel and Glenn who are also featured in the excellent AMC storyline. (I have not read the graphic novels so won’t assume they are from there.)

There are some hard decisions the player will have to make for Lee and sometimes there are no “right” answers. The game’s aesthetic is similar to the comic book, yet animated, and comes off very well. The “zones” or as they used to be called “screens” in old-school adventure games, remind me very much of the classic adventure games. There are features to manipulate and examine, not all of which are immediately useful, or have any apparent use. I must have had Lee look a newspaper clipping six or seven times before I determined they were just for “flavor.” One other interesting feature of the game is the stat tracker telling you what percentage of players choose certain paths compared to your choices.

So far Telltale has released two episodes of the game and I burned through both very quickly, even for me, the game is THAT intriguing. I think it will appeal to those who may not necessarily be fans of the zombie genre or old-timer adventure games enthusiasts like me simply because it is a well-made game.

Entertaining Platt: The Secret World

August 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here’s the secret to why I left The Secret World behind: Apparently, I need levels more than I need achievements, crafting, innovative quest designs, and an intriguing over-arching storyline.

Really, it’s just that simple. For an old curmudgeon like me, levels provide an easy measure and a ready goal for me to pursue. In a single-player game, strangely enough, I’m drawn back for story. But in an MMO, for whatever reason, I need that sense that I’m rising through the ranks.

I hear a lot of praise for the art direction on TSW. Perhaps my graphics card (NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560) is far too antiquated, but the style actually reminded me a lot of Fallen Earth‘s – a little post-apocalyptic game that Josh Peery and I helped build back in the good old days of 2006-2009. I didn’t dislike TSW’s graphics, although the character customization options were far too limited for my liking. In fact, the game’s visual similarity to FE actually helped draw me in.

But, no levels.

They had the Illuminati, who were so much like my beloved Travelers from Fallen Earth that I had to join their faction without hesitation.

But, but, no levels.

Look, they’ve got loads of achievements. They’ve even got location-based lore discovery nodes, similar to what we implemented on FE with the tourist telescopes. You must know, if you do not already, that I love achievements. But, uh, yeah, no levels.

They’ve got a crafting system that reminds me of a combination of FE’s resource management and Minecraft’s “put stuff in this kind of order until the craft grid spews out a new toy” approach. However, during the time I played, I didn’t see much that was craftable that would outshine whatever I got from dungeons or reward vendors.

But. No. Levels.

The quests, even though they’re mostly just chains of use object, kill X critters and kill named critters, actually have some very novel moments – from the mission that has you following a musical tune across the countryside to the one that has you unlocking computer files based on knowledge of classical composers. Scope and depth of story reminds me a lot of that favorite post-apocalyptic MMO of mine.

Still, no levels.

I need that motivation to keep going back. But if you want a game with great ambiance, engaging stories, oodles of achievements, and no levels: The Secret World is for you.

Entertaining Peery: Prometheus. (2012) Scott.

June 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

The Space Jockey or “Pilot”

I want to preface this review by stating that there is not many sci-fi franchises I like better than the Alien cycle. Aliens was the first film I ever recorded off TV (my uncle’s house had HBO) with a VCR. The “Alien Trilogy” was the first boxed set of VHS tapes I ever bought. I played all the “Aliens” arcade and home video games and the ones that would spawn the Alien vs. Predator films. I steeped myself in the background. As I write this review, the Aliens Colonial Marines Technical Manual sits on the shelf above me. I even had the privilege and delight to read the game design document that Icarus Studios pitched to 20th Century Fox (I assume, I never was clear on the client) for a three faction MMORPG.

I love Alien, which I saw after Aliens, and how it is profoundly Lovecraftian in its suspenseful build up and how it is three parts horror, one part Sci-Fi. Also, the story of Alien is more or less the retelling of Stoker’s description of Dracula’s journey on board the ship Demeter on his way to London. Alien is a combination of gothic (the ship Nostromo and the refinery it tows even looks like a castle) and Lovecraftian/monster horror. Better yet, it is well done and one can delve into many, many aspects of the film, which I have attempted when presenting academic papers on Sci-Fi monsters and robots to my peers at conferences.

Suffice it to say, I have given more than passing interest to these films. Ridley Scott, a frequent subject of my academic delvings, started his career in science fiction with Alien, and after his next film, Blade Runner, would not revisit the genre until Prometheus, thirty years later. (Ironically, a Blade Runner sequel may follow this film.) I was extremely interested in this film, and what it would add it to the greatest Sci-Fi cycle. It is as if Scott is returning to the old neighborhood home and, honestly, Prometheus is really almost more of a new coat of paint on Alien than a new film.

I’m sure this film made his head explode

SPOILER WARNING (but hey the trailers show everything anyway)

The film takes more than a few pages and ideas from Von Daniken and the more recent “Ancient Aliens” TV show on cable. At the start of the film the audience is treated to a sequence with a robed entity, marooned/sacrificed on a primordial Earth and a large UFO saucer leaving him to, ostensibly, seed the ooze with DNA to create life on Earth. OK, so I wouldn’t have guessed that the Engineers/Pilots (the IP called them “Pilots” first) looked like hair-less, albino, NBA players.

After this reveal we pretty much do not have any of the suspense or horror of the previous films. This story has played out a few times over the course of the series. We know that a crew of humans will go out and a single person(or a few) will come out. We see some variations on the Xenomorph, and some things with tentacles which may be the Lovecraftian nod, if ham-fisted, but the grown up “child” of Elizabeth really looked like a scaled down version of the “alien” from Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen. Even the latest Predator film, Predators, managed some interesting twists beyond the previous four films where these ultimate hunters appear.  Even, Cameron’s “sequel” to his Aliens, Avatar, managed to be more interesting, and if you squint and notice the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” even that the film fits into the series better than Prometheus.  If anything, Prometheus muddies the Alien IP and story chronologies further.

The only thing slighty positive I can say about the film is if you never saw any of the others it may stand up to scrutiny better. However, this was not the audience Scott should have been aiming for. He certainly is not taking out the dents and tarnish that have been appearing on his oeuvre. It really sort of makes me dread what he has cooked up for Blade Runner.

Entertaining Peery: Rage (id/Bethesda)

June 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m filled with “Rage,” I guess.

id/Bethesda’s Rage is a sub twenty-hour first-person shooter/racing/sandbox hybrid game that ambitiously tries to cover all those bases but falls short on almost all counts. This game could have been the Fallout killer with a decent spin on the apocalypse, via asteroid rather war, and its great combat, creature AI, vehicle mechanics, along with amazing art and graphics. However, the sandbox is illusionary, the side-quests sparse, gameplay and pacing is odd, and the story ends unsatisfactorily.

For example, the game does not allow you to drawn guns inside “quest hubs” and create emergent gamelay from having to deal with guards, quest giver reputation, etc. I can play Fallout and pretty much do what I want, I just have to live with the consequences. Rage would have better served with implementing a faction system connected to the “job board” side quests. That way I could shot some tool in the face and still get back in the town’s good graces.

The non-instanced driving is more or less predictable with enemies spawning in the same locations time after time and more or less with the same capabilities. Car mob variety and more random spawning could have went a long way here. Also, enemy scaling to your capability would have made free-form car combat more engaging. By the time I was engaging end-game  Authority vehicles in the final drive, I was one-shoting them.

The story’s premise is promising but the story arc itself stops short of a real conclusion to what you were fighting for and the off-screen adversary (whose voice is heard, but character is never seen) is not encountered. Pacing wise, there is one, “real,” boss-fight and it happens about half-way through the game. The final battle is basically a “hold-out” or normal enemies in waves. By this time you have robots and sentry guns doing a lot of your fighting.

The game features one “tutorial” area and two quest hubs, with fast travel between the hubs available, but for what end, I cannot guess other than the game WAS supposed to be larger than what shipped. Also, the NPCs mention other places that the player never sees, such as the town of “Gun Barrel.” This place sounded cool, and made me think I could make or buy guns there. Alas, it’s not in game.

This brings me to the crafting part of the game, while there is a fair amount of stuff you can make, most of it I never used. It would have been nice to be able to make ammo other than wingsticks. Also, the R/C bombs had limited areas where they could be useful. It would have been nice if there was an encounter where you had to face off with enemy vehicles while on foot using the crafted items and foot-based anti-vehicle rockets that were inexplicably vailable. (IE I never found a use for them.) I suppose if you wanted to walk to the quest hubs/dungeons this was possible. However, the lack of cover and distances involved would mean getting run over, most likely.

Overall, I feel that this game suffered from over ambitious design that collided with development realities. It tried to do a lot and ended up not doing many of the aspects very well. There may be hope for a “do-over” as PR boss Peter Hines stated recently that Bethesda believes in the IP and that it’s “certainly our hope and certainly our intent” that it turns into a big franchise. This makes for an interesting situation considering Bethesda/id/Zenimax already has several IPs to juggle: The Elder Scrolls, Doom, Fallout, AND this Rage IP. While I would love of them to continue this IP and style of game, maybe Zenimax should combine the Rage/id team, and their combat and vehicle play, with the Fallout team for the story, content, and sandbox. I wanted Rage to be Fallout with vehicles,  or at least a single player Falllen Earth, but alas it fell far too short.

RE-Entertaining Peery: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) Murakami

June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

“I’m from Earth! Ever hear of it?”

While perusing Netflix, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane and watch one of the numerous sci-fi films I had viewed as a child. Nine times out of ten most offerings in this genre will not hold up very well with age. This time I was pleasantly surprised.

1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars was most likely a film produced by Roger Corman in order to cash in on the coattails of Star Wars. At the time, this film was also one of Corman’s biggest budget films, however from judging the budgets of his other films prior that means coming up with around the amount of dough needed to feed a family of four at McDonalds.

That said, the film’s premise is fairly solid and uses Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as its base. Ironically, with the casting of Robert Vaughan in this film he has been in two remakes of Seven Samurai, more or less reprising his role of Lee from The Magnificent Seven. Also notable was George Peppard’s “Space Cowboy” role which was quirky and endearing, the character possessed with a Scotch, soda, and ice dispensing utility belt along with a Rebel flag bearing spaceship.

Overall, the production value and special F/X are above average for the time period and budget. The dialog has some expected Corman camp, but is otherwise bearable.  The make-up and creature F/X could have used a bit more budget, specifically Nestor and Cayman. However, the ship models and interiors are above average being on par with ILM of the day. Notably, this film was James Cameron’s big break as the special F/X and art director. Also, while scanning the credits I found John Sayles as screenwriter and Gale Anne Hurd, a frequent Cameron collaborator (and one-time spouse), who now produces this blog’s favorite TV target The Walking Dead. It’s always interesting to see the early work of current movers and shakers.

I frequently have written about and prepared course syllabi on Video Games and Film. With this viewing I suspect this film may have influenced the Star Control series of video games. The games’ themes and the matching of disparate races and ships are quite similar to those depicted in the film.

Overall, there are much worse films offered on Netflix streaming and this was worth the 104 minutes to (re-)watch.

Entertaining Peery: Video Game Tourism, Fallen Earth

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Entering Sector 3, watch out for Travelers grinding Park City

I recently had the opportunity to fulfill a long time wish to drive the length of I-40 from end-to-end. This happened to coincide with my desire for gainful employment.  A new job had me relocating from Apex, North Carolina to Orange County, California. Thus, continue my foray in the Video Games Industry, this time under the Carbine Studios banner.

While the trip itself is worthy of a longer treatment, I will focus this piece on something I will call: Game Tourism. My better half is an Architect and Urban Planner with a focus on Community Design and her work often has her trying to distill the essence of a “place” and create an inventory of the various facets that make that place unique. Often these are interesting historic places, a famous individual’s legacies, unique geography, iconic structures, so on and so forth. All these are then woven into a vision for the locale in order to leverage these things to enhance the lives of those who live and work there as well as bringing interest and tourism to the area. I posit that the fictional depiction of a place should also be considered an important facet.

I have always been fascinated with the meeting of media and reality. From film to video games, places depicted in media take on an extra cache from being injected into the stories. Thus, the real places enter into my curiosity after having learned something of them from a film, video game, etc. For example, living in The Triangle of North Carolina, the Durham Bulls are a local minor league baseball team… that the film Bull Durham made more famous than any other team of their stature. Going to a game with the film as a backdrop takes on another dimension. What’s more is the team even realizes this and last time I was at a game, Susan Sarandon was the PA voice over welcome to the game and park.

How does this work for a video game? For my example, I will return to my recent cross-country trip. In order to get to L.A. from North Carolina, I-40 is the shortest, fastest route. It also happens to pass close by the Grand Canyon and through Kingman, Arizona; both of which are featured in the futuristic/post-apocalyse  MMORPG, Fallen Earth. (FE is a game that Mr. Platt and I both worked on during our time at Icarus Studios and I still play when I get the spare moment.)

Sector 1, The Plateau

Having played in a game that used the USGS map for its world-building basemap, it was extremely cool to visit the real places and see the game in “real life.” I have to give extra kudos to the Icarus Studios artists and worldbuilders for making a “real” world after having been able to compare their work to the real place. Driving through the “real” Sector Three’s Kaibab Forest was like deja vu with the only difference being I was in my SUV rather than in an Interceptor, dirt-bike, horse, etc. from the game. Oh, and the roads weren’t as cracked…yet. Parts of I-40 in Arizona are dead ringers for the game’s Sector 1 Plateau and more so as you come upon signs for Kingman, called “Old Kingman” in the game.

I made a point to stop for the night in Kingman and soak up the game’s “ambiance,” up close and in person.  In game, the town is overrun by raiders and is an important location in your quest to get a set of wheels, literally and figuratively. I discovered the railway that cuts through town in the game, just where it should be in the real town. I saw the motel and storage facility where the raiders hold up. I have seen the game’s “past” and the town’s “future.”  I was grinning like an idiot the whole time thinking about all my game experiences in the town juxtaposed to being there in person.

Get your vehicle tires from Globaltech, I mean Goodyear…

The town of less than 30,000 people doesn’t have much to recommend it on its own. Route 66, the bygone icon of road freedom, is the biggest point of pride. It probably would surprise the town fathers of Kingman to know that, at its height, Fallen Earth had many more players going through a virtual Kingman than the real town has residents. Will they run out and put up a sign “Welcome, Fallen Earth clones!”  I doubt it, but this is one person who DID stop in the town precisely because of a video game. On top of that, Kingman won out over Needles, CA for my stop for the night. Needles afterall plays a prominent part in another of my favorite games: Wasteland. It couldn’t hurt Kingman to reference its appearance in the game, even if it was rated MA. Afterall, Wilmington, North Carolina had a Blue Velvet tour last time I was there and that’s not exactly family friendly, either.

By Josh Peery

Entertaining Platt: Diablo III

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Set wizard phasers to fun!

Up front, I’ll admit that I’ve never wanted a multiplayer version of Diablo. I’m perfectly happy conquering evil on my own, thank you very much.

So, it’s safe to say that I was pretty cranky when I found out that Diablo III would feature an always-online setup, requiring a connection via Internet to Blizzard’s game servers to play.

I don’t have to rely on someone else’s hardware to work if I want to crank up Civilization V. I’m at my own computer’s mercy if I want to play Torchlight.

Back when I was an avid World of Warcraft player, I was accustomed to putting up with maintenance Tuesdays. Color me unamused that I’m forced to endure them with Diablo III.

All that said: When the game runs, it’s mostly fun and it’s tremendously addictive. It is quite obvious as I play that the deep pockets at Blizzard spared no expense when it came to graphics, sound, and overall atmosphere/art design.

The monster design is amusing, from the horrors that explode and spew demon worms at you to the killer trees that spawn toxic pods to the annoying little treasure goblin guy who is, seriously, a mobile piñata that you’ve got to chase down and bash open to get goodies before he escapes via portal.

Combat’s simple: Clicking and mashing a couple of buttons. You won’t hear me complain about simple combat. I’m an uncoordinated goob. I’m old (just ask my fiancée! She says so!). Simple combat works for me.

What also works for me are the details in Diablo’s combat. Explosive spells make the screen appear to shake and they tear the environment apart. Beam spells seem like they actually strike substance when they hit a target. And there are some nifty area effect spells for mages, like electroshock, that let you zap groups of bad guys in a chain, even around corners. Little touches like that make me feel like even my starting character is a lot more epic than some new warrior getting started whacking peons in an MMO starter zone.

So far, the boss fights haven’t been all that great, and many seem like knockoffs of what Blizzard has done before. Fighting a skeleton king? Where have I seen THAT before? Beat up on the bloated horror boss, but get out of the way of the bursts of fire from Onyxia’s lair…er, I mean the grates in the floor.

Crafting isn’t much to write home about so far. It’s a money sink: You throw money at crafting skills to improve them. You throw money plus salvaged components at recipes to make items. I haven’t done anything with the Diablo III auction house yet, but my expectation is that I’ll use it like I did WoW’s – I’ll farm gold with my main and channel awesome items to my lower level alts from the auction house.

Where Diablo III ultimately wins me over is story – another area where Blizzard put in extra effort. I really enjoy playing through the narrative, seeing the high-quality cinematic cutscenes, and shifting from one important world locale to the next.

I’ll definitely play through it again with a different class and on a more difficult challenge mode.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer any modding opportunities, but it’s not like I have an abundance of spare time to tinker with toolkits these days!

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