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What Do You Play (a.k.a A Brief Bit of Self-Advertising)

Note: Hey, you! Do you like video games? Do you like answering potentially helpful surveys ABOUT video games? Are you living in Cambridge, Ontario? Then have I got an opportunity for you…

I will spare my audience the details of why this was necessary, but basically I need to put some promotional material out there for a project of mine.  The link below leads to a simple survey, probably one of several, that will help guide something truly awesome I and some associates of mine are working on.

Click here for an extra special survey.  Feel free to ask questions and definitely feel free to answer this survey.  I may explain what this is all leading up to in the future, but for now stay tuned.

 

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Call of Duty

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Video Review:

On the way…

Written Review:

When I think about how the first-person shooter has evolved, my first instinct is to turn to Call of Duty.  The little-remembered 2003 war epic turned a niche genre – the military shooter – into a full-blown phenomenon, earning millions for publisher Activision and resulting in an avalanche of competing products.  It has received ten spinoffs, nine official sequels, an expansion pack, and at least one compilation with over 100 million total game copies sold.

Like it or not, Call of Duty was the explosion that changed the shape of gaming.  And the original game was the spark that set it off.

I doubt that Infinity Ward knew for certain what kind of force they were unleashing when they fired that first shot, for good or ill.  When the close allies and acquaintances of Vince Zampella and Jason West departed 2015 Inc. for greener pastures, their greatest concern seemed to be making games the way they wanted to.  If I recall correctly, their time spent designing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was marred by clashing interests and the inability to add features or design levels as they saw fit.

Inspired (or perhaps filled with anguish) by their experiences at 2015, Infinity Ward’s original 22 members sought to improve upon the formula of their spiritual predecessor.  For their first project since the company’s creation, the team decided to play on the emerging trend of World War II-centric epics that were sweeping the world post-Saving Private Ryan… except with one key twist.

This new project would be about teams of soldiers overcoming the odds.

Team-based game design, save for in the multiplayer scene, had not yet emerged in first-person shooters.  In fact, Medal of Honor had made a point of focusing on the exploits of lone soldiers combatting the Nazi army, defying any notions that the war could be (and ultimately was) won by entire nations’ armies.

Thus, Call of Duty had the advantage in terms of innovation, as well as apparent grasp of realism.  In a time when graphics were still moderately blurry messes of pixels, here was a game claiming to not only be about the exploits of the Allied forces but which actually allowed the player to briefly inhabit the time and space necessary to experience these exploits first-hand.  No one had seen done it done before, but everyone wanted a piece of the action.

So, with all this build up and with the potential in the game’s premise apparent, Infinity Ward went forward with the release of the final product… and the rest, as they say, is history.  Many sequels later, one important question remains unasked: does Call of Duty (the original, that is) still matter?

To deliver such a verdict, we must first examine where all the trends and tropes began.  Call of Duty opens with images of war-torn Europe: abandoned villages steadily demolished by gunfire, foggy forests shrouding the clash of armies, the sound of death’s approach as bombers fly over advancing Soviet troop carriers.  The air is rife with both reverence and solemnity; as the superimposed text states, “In the war that changed the world, victory was not achieved by one man but by the lives of many… Across the battlefields of Europe, many nations united to reach one goal: Berlin.”

This, for the most part, is our setting: the final push by the Allied forces into Germany, circa 1944 to 1945.  The campaign follows the exploits of the American, British and Soviet armies – in that order – as each gears up for the most significant campaign of the war.  Save for some timeline hopping in the British missions and much of the Soviet section being set around the Battle of Stalingrad (1942), this is as streamlined and straight-forward a war epic as one can get.

First, I have to congratulate Infinity Ward for doing what other companies had not: focusing on more than one army.  World War II was not won solely by the Americans, nor were they the key driving force for victory; that is more attributable to the British and French efforts in Nazi-occupied France, and the westward push by the reformed Soviet army.  Thus, to accurately portray and honour those involved in such a grim conflict, you truly would have to acknowledge that America was a small part of a larger organization.

But the decision to acknowledge other nations’ efforts goes beyond simply righting a cultural error.  By cycling between each army, the game goes a long way towards contextualizing the player’s actions as being part of a global effort.  Over the course of the game, you control three different characters: Private Martin of the 506th Parachute Infantry Division, Sergeant Evans of the 6th Airborne Division, and Private Alexei Ivanovich Voronin of the 13th Guards Rifle Division.   To put it in perspective, the concept of one person (the player) carrying the war effort on their shoulders makes a lot more sense in real-world terms when it’s several distinct characters on several different battlefields taking on several different missions.

Those various mission play out in typical shooter fashion: you start out at a fixed point, move from objective to objective, wipe out countless enemies, and reach the assigned “end point” of the level.  The context of each mission, however, is what shakes up this established formula and what ultimately gives Call of Duty its edge over other games in the genre.

See, the international focus also has the distinction of granting Call of Duty a certain broader and more modern appeal than its contemporaries, not only because many different people are represented but because you’re tasked with doing different things with each group.  The American missions are focused on capturing and holding territories for the broader Allied advance, the British sections are espionage-based with an emphasis on sabotaging the Nazi war effort, and the Russian portion of the game is essentially one violent yet honour-bound push against the Nazi army to reclaim the homeland from enemy hands.  Values like loyalty, perseverance and teamwork get thrown around a lot in gaming, but here such ideals can be sensed in the very game design.

Frankly, I’m surprised not as many people defend this game (and its increasingly mad sequels) with the argument that globalization and international co-operation in any form doesn’t see the light of day much in gaming.  It is a miracle that any game managed to address the issue, but a game released in 2003 tackling it head-on? Damn near revolutionary, if you ask me.

All that global good will, however, is not the game’s only appeal – not by a long shot.

2003 was an interesting year for gaming, in that it contained many sequels and fondly-remembered classics but only incrementally advanced the industry.  Call of Duty, in particular, stands out both as a notable advancement in shooters and a firmly rooted classic shooter in its own right.

It advanced what we know and what we expect about first-person shooters not by being the first game to introduce set-piece moments, but the first game to do them extraordinarily well.  Set-pieces being scenes of intense action that are typically found in blockbuster films, there had to have been doubt about whether or not Infinity Ward – a very fresh-faced and “green” developer – could translate such cinematic intensity to the language of gaming.

And yet as we look back, that is exactly what Infinity Ward managed to do: translate the sensibilities of an old-school action-packed war epic into the rules and restrictions of the first-person shooter genre.  Within the game’s 25 missions (8 for the Americans, 7 for the British, 10 for the Soviets), the developers managed to included tank battles, multiple car chases, a segment in which the player fires a flak cannon solo, an entire level that felt reminiscent of GoldenEye’s opening sequence, an chaotic uphill battle on the shores of Stalingrad, and (from what I gather) the siege of Red Square as visualized by Enemy at the Gates.

Which is to say nothing of the ordinary gameplay, where the other great thing about Infinity Ward’s gamble shines.  Shooter design in the modern age means a two-gun limit, a single-minded approach to level design not unlike a funnel, the clear “implication” that hiding behind cover and firing off potshots is the only way to have fun, and the overwhelming difficulty presented by trigger-happy cover-abusing enemies.

Shooter design in the original Call of Duty, meanwhile, is a lot looser about the rules of combat conduct.  The two-gun limit still exists, but a pistol is automatically included on your person as a “sidearm”, thereby eliminating the debate between having a backup weapon and having the far more useful standard weapon.  Levels are less a funnel and more of a wide map with specific objective markers, thereby allowing for more variation in how you get from Point A to Point B.  You can, in fact, run into a room or field guns-ablazing and survive (though the presence of the lean button does suggest a more tactical approach).  Enemies still enjoy their cover, but they will pop out or charge depending on the situation.

It’s very much the time in which Call of Duty was released that determines much of its success.  We had not yet seen the bullet hellstorms of more modern shooters, the oversaturation of the market with pro-American recruitment vehicles and anti-Middle East propaganda.  It was a simpler time, when the only war people were really concerned with was the one that everyone agrees needed to be fought – be it for honour, or the economy, or for the preservation of millions of lives.

Now with all that said, it is by no means perfect.  Being an artifact of a more simple time, it gets points for not descending into the madness of current politics – but the tradeoff here is that the complexity of its themes is practically non-existent.  To put it into more relatable terms, the game doesn’t really fail in any manner.  It just lacks something deeper, something that appeals beyond surface level.

For instance, the idea of focusing on the more notable forces of the Allies is nice. The idea of focusing solely on their victories and the hind end of World War II, however? Not as effective as, say, using the guise of a first-person shooter to explore the failings of the Allied armies and compare them to the very enemy they fight tooth and nail.  Granted it was 2003 and such a high concept wouldn’t see daylight until Spec Ops: The Line shattered our reality, but courting the idea would have been an incredible shakeup of the traditional war epic.

Speaking of shakeups, I also wish the game’s visual palate had the bravado to pull one off.  This is not a condemnation of the Quake III engine as used here; everything may not have aged very well, but it runs at a smooth rate and captures your interest most of the time.  It is also not my way of disliking an older game’s look just because of its age.  It’s just that when you’ve played one colour-drained shooter, you’ve played them all.  The European setting, complete with authentic stone architecture and rustic forests, may have a lot to do with this but some creativity in this regard would have been nice.

Setting aside the complaints, there is enough to praise that I can safely answer my earlier question.  Yes, Call of Duty still matters and it needs to be experienced to truly understand what has been gained – and lost – with modern gaming.  What began as a simple deviation from Medal of Honor has become something almost damnable today, but the original’s good intentions and solid design are what protect it from passing into obscurity or being lumped in with its offspring.

Well done, Infinity Ward.  You truly proved that no one fights alone.

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An Extra-Special Announcement from The Codex Admin

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Greetings from this deep, dark corner of the Internet journalism world.  Normally this is the part where I go on a lengthy tangent about how circumstances or the nature of my life has lead me to make an executive decision about how to run this site, but I felt that in this context “short and to the point” was probably the best way to go about things.

So, to that effect, here’s the lowdown: we – meaning Gamer Codex as a whole – are about to make a major shift in the production of articles in general, and reviews in particular.  We’re getting rid of our review score system.

I’ll give the three of you who read our stuff a moment to recover from your shock.

Yes, Gamer Codex will no longer release review scores of any kind with our articles.  It’s partially our way of honouring the words and ideas of famed critics like Bob Chipman, Anita Sarkeesian or Yahtzee Croshaw, but mostly… it’s just a conveniently good move.  I remember giving Call of Duty: Black Ops II a flipping 9.5, something which made sense on a technical level but which has, over time, become something of a sore spot for me because of the game’s severely compromised themes and implications.  Conversely, denying games like Poker Night 2 or Spec Ops: The Line the qualifier “great game” because my review system tells me they have technical or creative flaws is true injustice in a nutshell.   Games can be innovative, creative and culturally significant in other ways besides graphics, controls and range of content – indeed, those three things aren’t really as important to a game’s success and impact as one might imagine.

With that reasoning in mind, I have decided to make a bold decision and remove the review scale entirely from the process.  Instead, when we release a game review, it will be less of a rundown of a game’s particular features and more of a critical analysis of a game’s themes and cultural impact.  That way, we can set a strong example for other journalists trying to get into the industry by essentially saying, “If you really care about gaming journalism, take a look at this”, while also distinguishing ourselves from the plentiful sites trying to get their review scores on Metacritic to feel powerful and connected (you know who you are).

People can disagree if they want, but all I have to say on the matter is this:  if talking about games and examining their meaning matters less than a god-damn number, then there truly is no hope for the future of gaming or games journalism.  Neither will never be respected and treated as mature fields if we don’t address the products we release in this particular manner.

There’s another big announcement I have for you, which is more of a publishing detail; namely, that our reviews are going to come in Standard, Video and Short-Form flavours.  What I am planning is to release normal-sized written reviews in pairs every month, along with 8-to-10 minute video reviews for each and “bite-sized” articles where I briefly discuss several games.  That way, people still get their fix of critical content on a regular basis but with the added bonus of having choices based on available free time and personal interest.

Editorials based on real-world developments or any given subject I (or other writers, should they appear) choose to write about are less certain, at this point.  Obviously I can’t predict what will be news-worthy in the gaming industry at any given time, and I can’t say I’ll have strong feelings for these hypothetical subjects.  So there is a very real possibility that articles like In Defense of Tropes vs. Women will be a once-in-a-while proposition – sorry about that.

Anyway, that is all for the moment.   We’re bringing in a wider range of review-type articles, we’re shifting to a new style of review, and we may or may not have editorials and opinion pieces in the works.  It’s still a work-in-progress so keep your eyes open in the coming months, and remember… gaming is for everyone to enjoy.  Don’t be a dick about trying to “protect” the old ways – that road leads to prejudice and loneliness, my friend.

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In Defense of Tropes Vs. Women: Why Anita Sarkeesian Has A Point

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First and foremost, I have to get this out of the way: up until a couple of days ago, I had never heard of Anita Sarkeesian or seen any of her works.  This is a new development for me, and I find it significant enough to dedicate an article to.  I don’t know her personally, I can’t say I am capable of judging her on a personal level, and I am a newcomer to this discussion.

With that said, this is my one and only disclaimer.  If you hold issue with her for whatever reason, I cannot advise you to keep reading if your intent is anything other than intelligent discussion.  This is an editorial in defense of the importance of her series Tropes vs Women (particularly as it pertains to video games), with the implication apparent that I am a newly-determined supporter of Ms. Sarkeesian.  For the yahoos out there who have trouble with big words, here’s the gist: F**K OFF if you’re here to complain, whine, harass or otherwise cause suffering.

Now, those like me who are only now joining the discussion are likely to be wondering who exactly Anita Sarkeesian is, and why I had to be hostile just now.   Sarkeesian is a newly-arisen video blogger who uses her blog Feminist Frequency as a staging ground for the critical analysis of how women are portrayed in various mediums.  Like Channel Awesome’s own Nostalgia Chick, Sarkeesian’s goal is to explore how certain tropes tied to women in media have formed and why they pose an issue in the big picture.

Very reasonable, very sensible, very necessary in an age of growing pains – especially with regards to gaming’s struggle to “grow up”.  No medium is inherently perfect and critics need to exist so that the moderators of the medium can understand what works and what needs to change.  From co-writing an essay entitled Buffy vs. Bella: The Re-Emergence of the Archetypal Feminine in Vampire Stories to producing analytical videos about “The Smurfette Principle” or “The Bechdel Test”, Anita Sarkeesian has done her part in the quest for gender equality and basic human decency.

More recently, she started (and accomplished) her own Kickstarter campaign to gain finances for a new series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games.  With over $150 thousand to spend, Sarkeesian went about filming and producing this new, insightful look into how certain stereotypes concerning women have become common place in the gaming scene. So far as I can tell, critical reception of the series has been largely positive and there are 7 more episodes planned on top of the existing four.

For the record, I have watched the series to date.  It’s good – a bit dry for some tastes and perhaps lacking the visual energy of other webseries, but this is one of the rare straight-faced analytical web series that stands a good chance of not only surviving but thriving in the melting pot of Internet personalities.  Sarkeesian gets the material, she’s well-spoken, and the show definitely looks good with effective transitions and high-quality video clips.

All of that sounds like a resounding recommendation, right? Anita Sarkeesian for the win, long live Tropes vs Women and any similar series, and so forth? SO THEN WHY THE F**K ARE PEOPLE THREATENING TO RAPE, MURDER OR ASSAULT HER?

I do not understand why this is the gaming community’s – indeed, the Internet community’s – reaction to the well-intentioned commentary of an intelligent, impassioned person.  Actually scratch that – I do understand what is happening here, I just don’t want it to be the case.  See, for the longest time the video game industry was largely targeted at and made for male audiences.  To publishers, young boys were the most prominent and profitable demographic, and to capitalize on that fact their games usually played out as male power fantasies (hence why a female equivalent of Double Dragon is unheard of).

Why does this CliftsNotes history lesson matter? Well, those young boys eventually grew up – if you hear someone like Bob Chipman (another class act/outstanding critic who you should really check out) refer to “Generation NES”, these are the people he’s talking about.  While the 80s and its games are not necessarily to blame for how misogynistic some of “Generation NES” turned out, the fact that some of the key titles of the era were inherently masculine-centric with rather regressive views on femininity does not help matters.  Now we have 20 or 30-somethings whose ideas of gender politics isn’t defined by the extent of their education or their internal morality, but by archaic values imparted by an interpretive medium.

Let me be clear: I love gaming, I am proud to be a game critic, and I support the growth of the medium.  I do not blame the games, but rather the inability (or unwillingness) of society to teach gamers to differentiate between reality and fiction, for what has happened here.  Ms. Sarkeesian has done her best to make a solid and respectable case for why this is a problem, and why we the gamers need to change this or that paradigm for our own betterment – and for the betterment of the games.

Even taking into account how they grew up, I still can’t get into the mindset of a person who would say this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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I mean, who would? It’s insane.

So, if you want my highly intelligent and well thought-out response to these egregious statements, here is what I believe these individuals deserve as a rebuttal:

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Yes.  Nothing more and nothing less for you miserable f**ks.

Feminine traits are not a sin.  Wearing pink, showing visible emotion, not having an active role in physical activities – things typically grouped under the “Feminine” heading – are as much a part of male existence as female existence.  In fact, headings like “male” or “female” don’t really have a place anymore at all - we are all just human beings choosing to emphasize what traits feel right to us. Anita Sarkeesian emphasizes her analytical prowice and her care for equality.  I emphasize my compassion for people I care about and my desire to improve the entertainment industry.

So to close out, here are some facts about me as proof that I can walk the walk:

  • When I was young, I owned a “Soccer Barbie”.  I have no regrets there.
  • I tear up and outright cry a lot more than I let on (Treasure Planet and The Iron Giant being notable triggers)
  • I think that Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake have gotten far too much flack as actors
  • I enjoy baking bread over physical labour or computer maintenance any day 
  • Blue Valentine is one of my favourite films of all time
  • Once on a whim, I sought out and watched Bride Wars.  Not bad, not great, but I can at least say I’ve seen it.

I am the Codex Admin and no one has the right to judge me on my choices or beliefs.  Give Ms. Sarkeesian the same courtesy.

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The Codex Admin’s Perspective on Some Games from 2013

You may be wondering why this article is appearing in lieu of a proper review, given that I’ve now reverted back to a bi-weekly review schedule (after having reverted back to a weekly schedule that didn’t last).  The short version is that I’m a busy man, what with school work piling up and various forms of sickness to deal with.  Also, Daikatana is a crappy, crappy, crappy game that is as time-consuming to play as it will be to write about.

So, this is basically a consolation article.  In what spare time I have had, I’ve managed to play several hit games from this year that, for scheduling reasons, won’t see an official review until 2014.  Because the process required in analyzing and reviewing a game is sort of lengthy, I thought it best to just get to the bottom line and recommend which games to play and which to avoid.  I’m including my preliminary score, what about it warrants said score, and why I am unable to properly review at this point and time.  That’s not to say I won’t review any of these games, just that I won’t review them right now.

On that note, here we go.

1. Saints Row IV

What’s the approximate score?

four_half-stars_0

Why’s that? 

Of all the games on this list, this is one of two entries that can be defined as “pure, unadulterated fun”.  It’s the super-powered, hyper-kinetic, tongue-in-cheek wish-fulfillment adventure I’ve always wanted in a game… and I’m wasn’t even a fan of Saints Row when I started playing.  Even coming into the series fresh-faced, you can sense the love its developers have for its characters, its world, and for the potential antics one can get away with if granted super-powers.  Barring some difficulty swerving and some noticeably second-hand graphical assets, this is easy to recommend.

Why can’t I review it?

In-between the respectably awesome Splinter Cell: Blacklist and the disappointingly mediocre mess that was The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, this wonderful gem of a game was my way of unwinding.  As such, I didn’t get enough written material for a proper review, much as I’d love to analyze the hell out of Saints Row IV and see exactly why it appeals to me.

2. BioShock Infinite

What’s the approximate score?

3-stars-out-of-5

Why’s that?

At the risk of attracting scorn from other gamers and critics alike, I’m just going to throw this out there: what was the point of that ending? Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty, this one factor all but ruined the experience for me because of how scatter-brained and unfocused it turned out to be.  Setting aside that debatable issue, the core gunplay felt merely average, the level design was standard for a shooter, and the Skyline mechanic – the one true bright spot in the game design – was woefully underutilized.  It may have strong actors and an intriguing premise complemented by deceptively soft visuals, but what’s the point if the player just doesn’t care about the experience?

Why can’t I review it?

This is one of those games that you really need to dig into to properly review.  There’s multiple difficulty levels, including the nostalgia-inducing 1999 Mode, and some randomization applied to the gear players end up accumulating.  Basically, research time is needed to fully explain the game’s failings, and I simply don’t have the schedule for that right now.  Also, I’d rather keep my head attached to my shoulders, rather than mounted on a pike by irate fans.

3. Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure

What’s the approximate score?

four-stars

Why’s that?

This is the other game getting the “pure, unadulterated fun” label.  5th Cell’s love, respect, and knowledgeable nature when it comes to the DC Universe meshes well with the Scribblenauts series’ “Draw What You Want” philosophy.  The resulting experience is a light-hearted adventure starring hundreds upon hundreds of classic (and obscure) comic book characters, complete with a healthy dose of randomized puzzles in each world and fun dialogue calling back to DC’s vast history.  The only real downside, aside from some missed opportunities in the form of voice acting or game-changing plot twists, is that the Mxyzptlk challenges mess with the game’s careful balance of player influence and logical puzzle design.  It hampers on the experience a bit, but it’s nothing (truly) game-breaking.

Why can’t I review it?

See my sentiments about Saints Row IV above to get the gist.  Between reviews, it was a nice and welcome diversion from very serious fare, but it was ultimately a casualty in the battle against my soul-crushingly busy schedule.

4. The Last of Us

What’s the approximate score?

five-stars

Why’s that?

Look, I expected to call this an over-rated critical darling, but I can’t deny Naughty Dog’s cinematic chops or risk-taking approach to game design.  Despite my minor misgivings about the ending, I’m prepared to call this an excellent exercise in balance – the beautiful visuals complement the grim morally-ambiguous narrative, the understated dramatic score fits with the cautiously hopeful tone, and the stripped-down shooter mechanics don’t overshadow the surprising sense of player progression or the variety of strategic options in gunfights.  It’s a game deliberately designed to raise eyebrows at modern shooter design, the nature of interactive narratives, and various other satire-worthy issues in the industry – and it looks pretty to boot.

Why can’t I review it?

I only just finished the campaign and I haven’t even touched the multiplayer yet (damn you, Online Pass!).  I’m one of those completionist critics who really hates not experiencing all that a game has to offer, so don’t expect an in-depth review any time soon.

5. Payday 2

What’s the approximate score?

3-5-stars

Why’s that?

This is a very interesting, but very broken game.  It’s clear from the get-go that Overkill Software really wanted to step up their game after Payday: The Heist turned out to be the unexpected success it was, and in terms of general game design this ambition pays off.  The heists are certainly more varied and complex, the dynamic events throw morbidly fun wrenches into the best of plans, and the player progression system is much more refined and user-friendly (despite the decision to make money both the currency for equipment and upgrades being, well, frustrating).  However, I can’t forgive a single-player mode with such basic friendly AI, or a multiplayer suite filled with game-ending bugs and connectivity issues.  If a game makes me cautious about going online for fear of crashing my PS3, you know something is very wrong.

Why can’t I review it?

I’m only ranked at Level Five, and I haven’t played through all the different types of heists.  Essentially, if I were to review the game right now, it would be rife with generalizations and half-baked criticisms that any writer with half my skill would balk at.  I don’t want to half-ass my reviews, so I’ll need some more time.

6. The Showdown Effect

What’s the approximate score?

3-stars-out-of-5

Why’s that?

I don’t dislike this game, I just think it should be grouped with Japanese role-playing games and real-time strategy games: stuff that sounds interesting, but isn’t meant for me.  Its love for the 1980s shines through with its colourful aesthetic and over-the-top stereotypical characters, but the core side-scrolling shooter gameplay doesn’t feel like it lends itself to balance or player progression particularly well.  Basically, it’s a “shape up or get the f**k out” sort of game, but without the necessary fun or upgrade mechanics to make it relatively fair.  Also, the online matchmaking is frustrating at times.

Why can’t I review it?

It’s just not that interesting to analyze.  The time I’ve set aside for reviews is valuable, given what else I have to deal with, and a straight-forward blend of Team Fortress 2 zany goodness with mid-rate bullet hell gameplay from days of old just doesn’t come off as a priority.  That said, the New Year may lend itself to a review period when this does get some time to shine.  We’ll see.

7. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

What’s the approximate score?

3-stars-out-of-5

Why’s that?

If the issue (well, an issue) with the Metal Gear Solid series is that it has relied far too much on exposition dumps and not enough on character actions, Rising: Revengeance is a case of taking an idea far beyond the necessary extreme.  I will accept the lower-resolution graphics engine, I can get past the difficulty essentially expected of a hack-and-slash game, I can even forgive the conflict between the game’s cluttered level design and the fast-paced nature of controlling Raiden… but at what point should I start caring about the story or characters? Is the game meant to be a parody of the overly-serious yet oddly-fantastical series it spawned from, or is it just a goofier (and somehow more melodramatic) rehashing of old elements even Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 got tired of?  I just don’t see the point beyond, “Hey, let’s have that cyborg ninja guy hack through hundreds of nameless enemies, and explain it all with a bargain-bin script based on what Kojima did”.

Why can’t I review it?

If that tirade wasn’t clear, I do have a lot to say about this sad excuse of a spin-off.  However, as with The Showdown Effect, I just don’t have the interest in reviewing it right now.  I played through most of the game in March, and I haven’t returned to it since.  Also, despite feeling irritated by its narrative the key word I’d use to describe the experience is boring (after that would be repetitive).  It just kind of grinded on me after a while, in a way that only a tedious game could.

There are also some games of which I’ve played no more than an hour .  Here is how I have felt thus far:

Dota 2 – I like this particular art style and the challenge of such a competitive MMO, but it would take more time to really get immersed (and to finish the necessary tutorials)

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – I stopped playing earlier this year, but I’ll admit the neon visuals and self-aware tone make me want to give it a second look

Knights of Pen and Paper - Its promise of back-to-basics turn-based role-playing seems interesting, but it’s not my cup of tea

Papers, Please - This sh*t be intense, and in all seriousness the tense atmosphere combined with a respectable difficulty curve makes this feel like a classic in the making

Rayman Legends - When I get the chance, I really want to progress further and experience all that the game has to offer: tight platforming, fantastical visuals, unique level design, the whole nine yards

Rogue Legacy - While I respect the passion for its rogue-like roots, I don’t know if it will have the same lasting impact on me as something like The Binding of Isaac.

State of Decay - I’ll return to this as soon as possible, partially for how it handles resource management and character progression but mostly because DAYZ is the much harsher alternative

Are there any games you’d like me to address? Do you think I’m out of my damn mind for one opinion or another? Feel free to send me a message on Twitter at @KMH1138 or email me at gamercodex2012@gmail.com.

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The Wolf Among Us – Episode One: Faith

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The Short Version:

Buy this game for the love of F**KING GOD! Rarely this year, or with gaming in general, have I seen everything I want a game to do right done right.  Strong pacing, good action, top-notch writing, high-quality acting, controls that don’t feel like driving a big f**king tank – it’s the introduction to the Fables universe anyone could like, and that I fully support.  Get the season pass, and feel better about yourself and humanity in general.

The Long Version:

Ever since the last episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1, I’ve had the sinking feeling that any follow up to such a success would be futile.  Granted, this was before I was satiated with 400 Days, but nevertheless with Telltale it’s always hard to tell exactly how well they can pull off a new (to them) property; thus, even with the promise of a new aesthetic and enhanced mechanics carried over from The Walking Dead, I was quite weary of The Wolf Among Us on principle alone.

Thankfully I was completely wrong.  If this first episode has taught me anything, it’s that we should all definitely be reading the Fables comics – and, more importantly, that Telltale knows how to build a world.  The Wolf Among Us – Episode 1: Faith is quite possibly the strongest start for a Telltale series or season yet, and is certainly the bar by which other episodic series will be measured from here on.

As to the content, the set-up’s an interesting one.  Centuries after a great exile, the fairy-tale characters of old (known as Fables) have immigrated to New York City to inhabit “Fabletown”, a community hidden within the heart of the city. Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, has been tasked with protecting the denizens of Fabletown – and with keeping them from tearing each other apart.

Add to that the fact that Wolf is, as his name may imply, the reformed Big Bad Wolf in human form attempting to atone for his past actions, and you have a very tense balance at play here.  Wolf is not straight-forward, he is not inherently good, and he is definitely not in complete control of his base instincts… and I love it.  He’s played as a believable, multi-dimensional character by the venerable Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Mass Effect 2), the script gives him – and the player controlling him – ample opportunity to expand upon his values and way of life, and the entire episode leaves plenty of room for really great development to occur.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast is slouching, either.  Throughout the episode, Wolf encounters a nice range of Fables hidden in plain sight, from anthropomorphic animals to twisted takes on classic fairy-tale characters.  Wolf’s interactions with each character show off both the excellent voice talent Telltale has assembled, and the strength of a script clearly inspired by ’80s crime dramas.

That crime drama element leaks into the gameplay, with the episode sporting both detective-oriented sections and intense action sequences.  Both aspects mesh well together and provide a interesting balance: the moments when Bigby has to scour crime scenes for details builds a sense of tangible atmosphere that keeps the player’s hairs raised, and the dynamic action sequences wherein choosing how to fight an opponent and occasionally facing quick-time events delivers on all that tension while furthering the story.

In fact, I have to give special credit to the opening scenes – there’s never been quite this blend of excellent player-influenced action, sharp dynamic dialogue, and an intro sequence with such beautifully conducted synthesizer music and neon-lit visuals.  Fortunately, the unique blend of action, drama, and interactive narrative serves to keep the pace steady, the flow of quirky characters and intriguing twists regular, and the investigative angle quite fresh.

The episode works both as a sampling of the larger Fables universe and as a standalone – though distinctly player-controlled – story.  There’s scenes where the rules of this grimly beautiful world are laid out, where the myths of various fairy tales are revised or drawn upon for drama.  Sometimes it serves to further the “dark naturalistic fantasy” angle, but other times it’s to insert a dose of grim humour – neither of which I can object to.

Whereas The Walking Dead is a very personal experience that I want to savour, The Wolf Among Us has a certain quality that demands one should replay it a few times in a row.  The big story-dividing choices that come up, though perhaps telegraphed as significant, do make me want to go back and see how the other half lives.  Interacting with characters and choosing dialogue remains as engaging and significant to world-building as ever, with how people perceive Bigby being one of the ultimate reasons I want to see how the rest of the series plays out.

When you get down to it, what we are looking at is a great experience in both emotional appeal and in design.  The basic framework of this plotline allows for Bigby to travel to various areas in New York, spending a notable amount of time in the seediest levels of the Bronx.  No locale overstays its welcome, the exposition is made enjoyable by character actions and reactions, the episode lasts as long as it needs to (about two hours), and it ends on a really nail-biting note.

Speaking of design, some may bring up the occasional split-second bouts of lag or pop-in that comes with the Telltale Tool.  I’m sick of bringing up this issue, and I suspect the company won’t change their ways, so I’m just going to advise you to ignore it as best as you can.  It’s not a prominent problem, nor is it a deal breaker; the sheer effort in crafting a distinctive, possibly original take on comic book visuals that Telltale has exerted here is admirable in its own right, but let’s not pretend it isn’t one of the game’s greatest strengths.  That, and the aforementioned soundtrack – composer Jared Emerson-Johnson should definitely be getting a raise some time soon.

It’s a simple matter – play this game if you want to see someone really get what gaming is all about.  From the range of choices and consequences on display, to the masterful balance of action and crime drama elements, to the refined presentation, this is Telltale running at 100% efficiency.  It’s one hell of a fairy-tale, so please do your part and check this out.

five-starsRecommendation: Buy It!

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The Walking Dead: 400 Days

Download-Now-The-Walking-Dead-400-Days-DLC-for-PC-via-Steam-2The Short Version

Here’s the deal: 400 Days is not as good as Season 1, but it’s worth playing on its own merits.  Telltale Games put a lot of faith in experimentation and variety this time around and it paid off.  This is a strong encapsulation of everything good and powerful about The Walking Dead, and it’s easily a highlight of 2013. Don’t cheap out on this – it’ll be worth the money in the long run.

The Long Version

I never thought I’d live to see the day an adventure game like The Walking Dead receive a Game of The Year award – and from the Spike VGAs, no less.  ‘Tis the truth behind Telltale’s success: the company took an existing franchise, and spun it into a massively player-oriented, emotionally-harrowing interactive narrative.  They got right what countless developers have spent years getting wrong – players like choice, players like emotional connections, and players most definitely like both intertwined into one.

So the follow-up to that success, 400 Days, has a lot to live up to.  It’s been promoted as gap-bridging DLC to tide us over until Season 2 (speaking of which: HURRAY!), so it has the feeling of a cash-grab right off the bat.  It also doesn’t help that it’s one episode released in the middle of the year, designed to experiment with traditional narrative scenarios; historically-speaking, experimental DLC can go either way.

With all that said, though, the end result is a tightly packed experience that never overstays its welcome.  The Walking Dead: 400 Days doesn’t last long, and there isn’t much meat to it, but what is there is both interesting and intense.

The setup of this little bite-sized adventure is unusual, but quite interesting.  The game opens with an interactive bulletin board sporting the pictures of five specific survivors.  From here, the player can select each individual photo and begin playing through each character’s unique tale.

What sets this episode – or loose web of stories, depending on your perspective – apart from, say, Season 1 is that it’s not focused so much on character building as it is on rapid-fire tension and intense player choices.  The scenarios range from a few minutes to about 10 minutes in length, presenting you with tough choice after tough choice.  Do you kill the hostile old couple, or do you simply walk away while you still can? Do you sacrifice one prisoner’s life for another? Would you kill a friend and fellow survivor on principle, or flee for safety?

It’s also distinctive in how varied the scenarios get.  The first I tried was set entirely aboard a prison bus, followed by another segment that saw a character flee recklessly from mysterious assailants.  400 Days is masterfully paced in that it doesn’t stick to one set of characters, or one situation, too long for its own good.  Events move along at a nice rate, though not without sacrificing believable dialogue and character interactions along the way (Rock-Paper-Scissors and Would You Rather? Well, in the apocalypse…)

Sadly, given how integral the story is to the gameplay, I can’t say much more about it.  All I will say is that, despite how affective the ending is and how relevant the theme of trust becomes, I did feel that the episode’s hour-ish length put constraints on how developed and relateable the characters came off.  I never felt quite as endeared to this cast as I was to Lee, or Clementine, or Kenny;  there just wasn’t enough time or powerful moments this go around.

Still, I’m thankful that the humanity and character dynamics that make this a popular franchise have remained as important here.  I just wish that the episode did slow down in some cases, especially in the Shel segment, just to really form a bond with people and to illustrate the sheer horrors  of this world.  It has one of those moments that could have used a bit more time to really sink in emotionally.

The presentation, for the most part, remains a reliable aid to the overall experience.  Barring some visual bugs and the rare bit of lag, the Telltale Tool engine remains a sturdy and visual pleasing element of the experience.  The soundtrack, while generally downplayed this time around, did resonate with me towards the end and it’s supported by continually talented voice actors.

To summarize, 400 Days is a more-than-solid, quite good experience that plays out as an experience should: short, but impressive.  Telltale played around with what they knew, tried out new things, and otherwise refined what was already a damn good series.  While not perfect, this episode certainly fits the bill of a nice light appetizer to the upcoming main course.

Season 2, here we come.

four-starsRecommendation: Buy It

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