So the Vanquish demo arrived on XBox Live. I thoroughly enjoy developer Platinum's titles (Bayonetta, Okami, Viewtiful Joe Series) but until this demo arrived, I had little interest in another third-person sci-fi shooter. Any other time of the year it might have blipped on the radar. But in the same time frame as Halo: Reach, a new take on Castlevania, and another Call of Duty (I'll be honest, I'm only getting it for the radio-controlled RC car equipped with an AV feed for spying on/playing with my kids) it had to stand out, and the screen shots didn't really sell it for me.|
Then I tried the Demo.
Whee!! Fluid, stylized action that felt like a hyper Gears of War, set in a clone of a Robotech universe, with a character in Issac Clarke's armor and wielding a gun stolen from the new Transformer movies. It was fast, over the top, Sega-brand arcade-y while containing depth, and I could see how the game's presentation and control combined into a beautiful player guided ballet in the vein of the new Ninja Gaidens and Devil May Cry.
At least, I think that's how it would feel if I could play it.
You see, I'm a southpaw. No, not a feline from Mississippi, a left hander. In a 3D space, my left hand has to control the look, and my right hand the movement. This, of course, is reverse of the traditional play control. No, it's not as simple as 'just get used to it the normal way.' Try playing one of the few games that manually allow a southpaw setting on the opposite of your preference and you may get a glimpse of my pain. And to all the Lefties in the forums that say an alternate control setup is unnecessary because they can play on the default, I'm happy you don't have a problem. I literally get nauseous playing the 'normal' way for more than ten or fifteen minutes, and I refuse to take Dramamine or other dimenhydrinates or medications to play a game. I've tried off and on for years, and it still makes me motion sick. Its not a problem if I can simply have the thumb sticks swapped.
Except it is. Because developers aren't really paying attention to between 10% and 15% of their gaming population, they may offer a southpaw control option that swaps the analogue stick controls, but obviously don't play test it. Let me give you a perfect example:
Gears of War supports an internal southpaw control option. It makes the left stick the look controls, and the right stick movement. We good now? Not hardly. Because G.o.W is a 'stop and pop' shooter, the player uses the 'A' button as a context sensitive control for taking cover, rolling to cover, jumping over cover, etc. The 'A' button is probably the most important button after the shoot button. Its directly above the right stick.
And. You. Can't. Change. It.
For normal controls, not a problem. But for southpaw, I need to move that right 'movement' stick in a direction while pressing the 'A' button. The button directly to the right of the stick. Let me give you a visual example of what my hand has to do to press 'A' while moving my character to cover:
Yeah. Any game requiring me to move the right thumb stick while pressing a face button (pretty much every 3D game) requires some crazy move like that. If I just move all my fingers across the face buttons 'arcade stick' style, then I can't reach the top bumpers and triggers. For Gears, they could have just let me change the 'A' functions with one of the bumpers (the left bumber is only used to give an arrow locating AI team-mates for crying out loud! I need that more than the game-designed-around-it cover system?!?!) Obviously, someone at Epic never play tested the southpaw option much, or this GLARING oversight of the unmappable 'A' button would have been addressed.
In fact, any 3D game requiring the use of face buttons that can't be remapped to the four top-side buttons on the 360 or PS3 controller is just a slap in the face to any southpaw-required gamer like me. It gets worse; many games won't even let you swap the thumb sticks anyway. Even the 360's internal southpaw preference is unsupported in many AAA games, including Battlefield 2, Lost Planet and Lost Planet 2, Bioshock, and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, just to name a small few. I had to buy a hardwired modded controller that internally swapped the sticks just to play these games, and that still doesn't address the face button problem.
What, are we still in the '90s? Why on earth, in this day of unprecedented mainstream gaming popularity, can we not get universal control mapping options on every game? Especially the large-scale developed ones? Sure, developers have their preference on how a game should be controlled; make that the default. Why alienate even a small percentage of the gaming population over such an easily correctable issue?
Maybe it's just me. For a long time I assumed it was. Then I read this:
I'm not alone!
Every time I submit a complain about this (I even called a few companies directly) all I would hear is a standard, 'thank you for bringing this to our attention, all of our customer's feedback is important to us, and we'll consider it for future releases' reply that would be the same line if I complained that their games didn't feature enough custard filled donuts.
Us southpaws have struggled in vain over this control issue ever since the Playstation era (though strangely, the Dreamcast featured several games with Southpaw defaults.) Please, help us bug developers enough so they will listen. Everyone wants to play games with the controls set up the way they are most comfortable, and even if you aren't a southpaw, there is almost certainly a game you would change a few buttons around on. Why are we still waiting?
It has been compared favorably and otherwise to everything from Braid to Ico. In truth, Limbo is a sum of several familiar gameplay components, wrapped in a dark, morbid, and mysteriously surreal narrative. What it is not, is for the faint of heart. Or wallet.
Gameplay consists of platforming, with only a jump and a contextual interaction button adding to the standard left and right movement. The sensitivity of the left analog stick determines walking, running, or creeping along, and that's it. No ducking, looking around, or direct combat. This streamline approach, rather than confining the experience, focuses the player on the two biggest features of Limbo: the environmental puzzles and the atmosphere. Oh, the atmosphere.
Limbo's palette is black, white, and grays, and nothing else. Instead of using this refined spectrum to construct high resolution and detail, the designers use the opposite extreme to grand effect. The visual filters and muted shades paint a dreamlike visual experience that is unique and immersing. Background and foregrounds are at a constant haze. Environments feature sparse lines and sharp angles that just barely convey a sense of open woods, labyrinthian underground tunnels, and complex industrial areas. Indeed, the world of Limbo only roughly sketches its home, then hands the pencil to the player's mind to draw the rest of the details. Where this could be easily viewed as pretentious or even lazy on the developer's part, the design is definitely purposeful, as the rest of the tools are clearly in the iron grasp of talent.
The animation is top notch, with subtle particle effects and little details emphasizing every action. Many clues are given for gameplay as well as narrative in the smallest of touches. The audio wisely follows the consistency of the visual design; sparse, light overtones occasionally punctuated by dramatic flair, and effects that will make the player much more squeamish than the persistent visual violence. I began playing with two friends watching, but before the hour mark I was alone. This brings me to an important point:
Limbo's content is not for everyone.
There is implied murder, torture, gore, drowning, dismemberment, and very dark themes. Without giving away spoilers, some actions will likely stun you in their graphic nature. This is not Mario. It is not Braid. It is a game designed around a certain theme, and that theme is played out fully. In the same manner that South Park may appear to target a young audience but is designed for adults, the same could be said for Limbo.
Though I personally feel games should always be based on their own merit, and there are flavorful and unique elements to the experience that is Limbo, everyone will compare titles. As mentioned before, Limbo imbues a desolate and lonely aura likened to the PS2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, comparative indie vibes to Braid (also an 'artsy' title criticized as derivative and overpriced), along with gameplay similarities to PC/PSX's Heart of Darkness.
And if the biggest sell for Limbo is the original atmosphere (and it most certainly is), the other is gameplay. Physics based puzzles and platforming challenges make up the bulk of the experience, with exploration and attentive observation yielding literal eggs for completion and achievements. A chapter select allows for easy access, and the game respawns the character only moments before each mistake, again putting the emphasis on puzzle solving and atmosphere. Some of the timing elements of the game are, true to the genre, mostly trial and error, and the designers were wise to avoid any life count or continuing limitations, allowing the player to simply keep at it until done.
Which brings out Limbo's only real 'fault' making the rounds of the critic circles at large. At fifteen bucks, is a game that can be completed in only a few hours worth such a premium? Limbo would certainly not survive the current expectations of boxed retail, and as a Live arcade download only title it is expected to compete with cheaper games containing more longevity. The almighty Castle Crashers, Braid, and even Ikaruga have fielded the same complaints, and review scores are bashed in light of perceived value.
I intend to write an article on the perception of entertainment value later. As for now, it comes down to this:
Limbo is original. Limbo is exceptionally well made. Limbo is, for a certain audience, wonderful. Limbo is fairly short, even abrupt by today's gaming standards. If you are interested, play the demo. It will tell you all you want to know: do I want more of this? Will the experience be worth the money to me, individually? Will I feel at a loss for paying this much for a few hours?
I know I, personally, have no regrets about purchasing Limbo. Indeed, I consider it a gaming experience to rival my top ten. But if you play the demo and are still not sure, Limbo probably is not for you, fifteen bucks or otherwise.
As an end note, I feel that the narrative played out in Limbo is terrifically realized, despite forum debates passed to and fro over the subjective nature of the story and its details. I thought it was rather clear in its intentions, and if it is not painfully obvious by now, I also feel it was a masterfully well done experience. If you are curious about my thoughts on the particulars of the story, feel free to PM me: I don't want to ruin or cheapen the experience for the curious by posting said thoughts in a forum.
BioShock 2. Halo 3 ODST. Super Mario Galaxy 2. New Super Mario Bros. Any Street Fighter after II. Every Madden after 2000 or so.
These games, other than representing new entries in their respective franchises, don't have much in common. But one thing I have heard about all of these games, either by critics or fellow gamers, is something along these lines: "this game is unnecessary."
The general mentality behind said comments usually indicate that the game does not offer enough updates, change, or innovation as to justify its existence, especially in light of previous games in its respective series. Some, such as the numerous updates to the Street Fighter series or Madden, are largely seen as simple tweeks or balancing, with occasional new characters or roster updates. Others, such as Super Mario Galaxy 2 and BioShock 2, are critically praised as superior gameplay experiences to their predecessors, yet are deemed as not really "needed" because of how well the first game performed or was received, and that the sequels were only market-driven extensions.
For this humble industry observer, the very idea that any entertainment product is 'unnecessary' because of previous similar product is not only humorous, but self-centered and destructive.
Imagine this same take on other entertainment:
Star Wars/Babylon 5/Stargate/Battlestar Galactica/Star Trek/Any other Sci/Fi with aliens represented as humans of other color or forehead wrinkles
Neon Genesis Evangelion vs. ANY OTHER SCI/FI Anime
Baseball/Football/Soccer/Basketball/Any other sport involving teams and vaguely spherical ball-like objects
Nascar/Rally/Cart Racing/Off Road/F1/Derby/Any other sport involving a vehicle and driver
This Band/That Band/That other Band/That Boy Band/All Rap,R&B,Techno,Classical,etc
Not only are all of these modes of entertainment highly derivative of other forms of entertainment, but to a non-fan they are often indistinguishable from each other within the same genre. Try talking about the differences of TOS, TNG, Voyager, DS9, and the movies to a non-trekkie and they'll just shrug; not only can they not distinguish between them but often they wouldn't care enough to try. I know plenty of people who can't distinguish Star Wars from Star Trek. Sacrilege to me, apathy to them.
Mention a 'strike' to a baseball fan and then a bowling fan. Watch what happens when you pretend to confuse the two. Somehow YOU'RE the dumb one for mixing up a term between two silly sports involving letting go of a ball. Aren't they pretty much all the same? (*ducks various thrown sporting gear*)
I'm not even getting into music, and how so many bands sound the same and yet sometimes something new and different can be so off as to be mistaken for noise.
The healthy purpose of entertainment is to at least give relaxation, and at most to edify. Why would I get upset over another Madden this year? Even if there are no serious innovations or updates beyond the new team rosters, if the sports fan buys it and has just as much or more fun with it as other entries, who am I to say that's not enough? Is someone else having fun? Am I a 'must be something new' Nazi to the point that I can't enjoy the bulk of current or even past games? Games that, while market-driven and mostly made with profits in mind, are still designed for the point of enjoyment?
This is not an attack on innovative progression. It is an acknowledgment that 'new' is not always better, and 'same' often has the right to exist alongside it. Striving for something completely groundbreaking and different, even improved, is admirable, and NECESSARY for the healthy development of our hobby. Trying to choke the gaming public with too much of the same will only lead to stagnation. The ol' industry crash of the early 80's will always be a reminder of that. (And epic mismanagement, of course.)
But video games are a much larger entertainment beast now. There is not only room for 'new' and 'same' to exist simultaneously, but often 'same' is needed to help fund 'new'. Those years of Madden sequels, much as they are criticized, paid for Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, and other original EA IPs. I have no interest in rehashed Pokemon, but that juggernaut helped keep Nintendo's name in the industry until my beloved DS released. Not to mention that shiny and awesome looking 3DS was built off the backs (money) of Mario Karts, Mario Golfs, Kirbies, and yes, Mario Parties.
Not only are sequels comfortable for us, they remind us of what we like and why we like it. I could probably enjoy Halo sequels for years, despite a core formula that is traditionally not altered much, not to mention it being another "generic" space marine FPS. You know, I LIKE that. I know what I'm getting, I know I like it, I want more of it. If they change things up a lot, I might like it more, but I might like it a lot less. Is is worth taking a chance? Sure. But why whine when a sequel is more of the same? If we liked the first, why are we griping that we were given more of what we liked?
We also need new. We need different. We need Katamari Damacy, Panic!, Vib Ribbon, mr. Bones, Seaman, Twisted, Odama, Kinect, Waggle, Move, NiGHTs, Yar's Revenge, Super Scopes, Bongos, Loco Roco, Patapon, Myst, and especially Shadow of the Colossus. We need something at least a little different, even if it fails. Even if it turns out to be not that fun. Even when new becomes the new derivative. Our industry adapts and shifts, or stalls and withers.
Different people enjoy different things, and the fact is that many of us will buy sequels and enjoy them, even if they aren't much different. Sometimes, it is because they are not much different. As much as I enjoy the Halo games, I think the Call of Duty series tend to be just above average games, but largely derivative of each other and offer little innovation between the respective entries. (Of course I recognize the same arguments leveled at Halo.) But they are both undeniable successes, and the sequels will undoubtedly follow in the same footsteps. Is that bad?
Apparently millions in the gaming mainstream don't think so. Why argue games should be so different if so many are enjoying these games? Are these millions of gamers wrong? I think that's the wrong question.
I think the more important question is, are these people having fun?
Or wasn't that the point?
I won't yet expound upon my views on the 'Video Games as Art' topic in full just yet. It is 2:15 a.m. and I need some sleep.
What I will proselytize is a free, twenty minute gaming experience I can honestly and wholeheartedly recommend to anyone:
(ALERT!! Turn UP the sound on your computer!! The music tells as much of the narrative as the graphics.)
Go there. Play. Yeah.
While the author has mentioned his desire to leave certain aspects of the experience open to interpretation, a brief glimpse across a few forums on the game highlight a common public construction of narrative consistent with my own. I don't wish to divulge further for fear of hampering the experience and direction of anyone else.
What I am most impressed with in this game is the delivery; the purposefully simple style and structure of the interactivity. Combined with deliberate musical cues and accentuation, a story forms out of the most basic of game elements and ends with a (likely) unexpected meditation. There is a holistic series of events here, and it may only come together after another play-through or two, picking up the visual and audio clues that were originally overlooked.
Of course, you might just whizz through it and apathetically wonder what I'm carrying on about.
You monster. ;P
Slackur, you most certainly didn't ask, what are your opinions of Sony's newly announced (er, named) 'Move' motion controller?
*stares blankly at Dance Dance mats, Wii balance board, Rock Band drum kit, Playstation Eye, Playstation Eyetoy, Gamecube bongos, various plastic guitars, Odyssey 2's The Voice, Virtual Boy, NES Power Pad, Zapper (new and old), various Wii remotes, nunchucks, and classic controllers, Beatmania controllers, Dreamcast mics and keyboards, Taiko drum master, 360 live vision camera, various console mice, SNES Super Scope, Genesis Menacer, Master system 3d glasses, and the Xbox Silent Scope Sniper Rifle literally littering the space between my living room and utility closet*
Eh. Good for them. I'll try it after a price drop or on sale.
Now I'm not a motion control hater, or one of those 'Wii doesn't count as a next generation console' fanboys. I may hate waggle, but the Wii reintroduced light gun games to the mainstream, one of my favorite genres. I still enjoy the challenging and competitive simplicity of Wii Sports and Resort. Raving Rabbids and Wario showed how hilariously fun well done multiplayer party games can be with motion control. Despite being a port, Okami showed worthwhile gameplay enhancements. Metroid Prime Trilogy, Dead Space: Extraction, Trauma Center, and Silent Hill used intuitive and immersive controls that helped develop atmosphere.
My vote for the best use of the Wii remote?
Boom Blox. An incredibly fun single and multiplayer experience that completely requires Wii's (previously unique) controller. This critical darling failed at retail, yet it was the best case to me for what Nintendo was going for; experiences unachievable by conventional controller methods, while leveling the playing field so anyone could learn to play with ease.
Not shaking my stupid plastic wand to jump or hit something.
I love my Wii for those exclusive experiences, along with around twenty or so others that don't rely so much on new control methods. But the Wii has been on the market for several years now, and there are very few games that pull off the requirement of motion control to sell the experience like Boom Blox or even Wii Sports.
The Move has more accuracy, better graphics, and a cool color-changing snowcone controller. But to what end? The Wii's biggest fault for me is not the absence of these things (though I'd rather have the rainbow snowcone than better graphics.) The problem is that the Wii has more proof-of-concepts than new gameplay experiences. I don't want the same light-gun, pull-the-bow-and-arrow, and steering wheel in space experiences I've done all those many times already. Prettier pictures and more responsiveness aren't going to justify the presence of another set of sticks my kids think change the TV channel.
Oh, I'll see some games I'll want to play eventually. Nothing they've shown so far looks very breakthrough to me, but I know I'm a sucker. I buy everything with the word 'Halo' in it despite knowing exactly what I'm getting; an experience whose core hasn't changed much since Wolfenstein 3D. I still enjoy them.
(btw. When purchasing everything with the word Halo in it, you don't end up with as many religious books as you'd think. You even end up with some Nine Inch Nails.)
If Sony wants to sell me on its new "forget we shipped without rumble, made fun of you for wanting it, then shipped with it after we settled our lawsuits" technique, they have to show me what new thing they are doing with it.
I actually have to give MS credit here, because the Milo demo showed me a new and interesting direction for motion control (Seaman and Hey You! Pikachu mixed with EyePet through a hype-mode Molyneux filter.) There are rumors that the protos have lag issues, but even if the final product ships requiring one to douse themselves in molasses so the HAL electronic eyes can keep up , if there is something new to experience beyond popping virtual bubbles and pretend-punching the screen, I'm in.
But if Sony, and later Microsoft with Natal, are going to go anywhere with these newfangled air-guitar imitators, we need to see why we NEED them in the first place.