What compels us to spend 25, 40, 50, even 70+ hours on a single game? We think we've figured it out. Join us for conversation about Dragon Age, Assassin's Creed 2, Way of the Samurai 3, Torchlight and Borderlands DLC. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, and Tim "Yes, I Like Borderlands Now" Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: Episode 27, GameCritics.com podcast. You know, they say the best ones are divisible by three. I'm Tim Spaeth; we are recording this the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009. The usual gang is here with me: Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken. Guys, how were your Turkey Days?
Mike Bracken: I am so thankful to be back here recording another show. It was fantastic.
Tim Spaeth: You've already forgotten about the celebration with family and the food; you were eager to get back to this podcast?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Short-term memory, man. It's in, out, over. Done with. Bring on the next thing.
Tim Spaeth: Undetrstood. Chi, Brad, what about you guys?
Chi Kong Lui: I actually haven't celebrated yet; we're celebrating tomorrow due to scheduling conflicts, but I did survive Black Friday.
Tim Spaeth: Did you go out? You went shopping?
Chi Kong Lui: Yes, I did. Yeah.
Tim Spaeth: What did you get?
Chi Kong Lui: Bought a bunch of toys for my son, and picked up Fallout 3 and Dragon Age., and an Xbox 360 and an additional controller.
Tim Spaeth: Nice. So with Dragon Age and Fallout, you've pretty much eaten up the first half of 2010. That's now been called for. Good. Well, good for you. Brad, what about you? How was your Turkey Day? First Thanksgiving with your new son.
Brad Gallaway:Yeah, that's right. It wasn't too bsd. I actually ended up working quite a bit, so I didn't really have the holidays off….kinda one of the pitfalls of my day job. But it's not bad. I ended up having a really good holiday, got to spend some really good quality time with the wife and son, and so I'm feeling good. I'm feeling good. I was really stuffed, and I think the last bits of the turkey and the swet potatoes I had are just starting to digest, so I'm gonna go back for some more tonight.
Tim Spaeth: Outstanding. Outstanding. Yeah, I had two full Thanksgiving dinners within 17 hours of each other: one at my wife's family, and one at my family, 'cause they don't interact 'cause of the feud. And I am still completely engorged. I am puffy and bloated and sick. So we'll see how long I can survive the podcast, but you may have to go on without me should I pass out.
So anyway, it's great to be with you. I'm very thankful to have you all with us. Guys, what are we gonna talk about this week? Let me throw out some words, and you tell me how these words make you feel: compelling, captivating, engrossing, engaging, immersive, addictive.
Chi Kong Lui: Things I want in my game.
Mike Bracken: "Engaging" makes me think of exposed midriffs with &36;299 written on them, for some reason.
Tim Spaeth: [Thoughtfully] Mmmm. You and Chi approaching this from slightly different angles.
Mike Bracken: Yes. Memories of E3s past.
Tim Spaeth: You know where I see these words all the time? In game reviews to describe what keeps someone in front of their television. You'll see things like: "The story is compelling." "The gameplay is engaging." And of course, the follow-up question that we ask as informed readers is: "Why was it compelling?" "What was so engaging?" And it's that deeper exploration that often gets missed.
So what I thought we would talk about this week is: What are the elements of a game that compel you to finish it, or play beyond the point where most people stop? Or we could look at it from the reverse angle: What elements that, when absent or poorly implemented, will cause you to stop playing a game?
So I think we've all picked out some games that we've put some serious hours into: 25, 40, 50, 70 hours of gameplay, and what on earth compelled us to do that specifically? Through the discussion, maybe we can arrive at some sort of conclusion. Are there universal elements that make a game more compelling than another?
What games are we going to talk about? We've got some of the hottest holiday hits: we've got Dragon Age, we've got Assassins Creed II, we've got Way of the Samurai 3, Torchlight, the brand new Borderlands expansion. We're gonna talk about all that, plus I'm sure some more games will be mentioned in passing. Guys, if you're ready, why don't we start with Dragon Age, or as I like to call it—and guys, do you wanna predict what I like to call Dragon Age?
Brad Gallaway:I bet you call it Dragon Age.
Chi Kong Lui: I was gonna say Dao.
Tim Spaeth: I've done this joke on, like, 25 episodes. Come on. You must know where I'm going with this.
Brad Gallaway:"I call it Steve." I don't know. What?
Tim Spaeth: I call it—
Mike Bracken: —Tom Selleck
Tim Spaeth: Oh, no. Forget it. I call it—
Brad Gallaway:—Too Human?
Mike Bracken: There are a lot of recurring themes with you in this show.
Brad Gallaway:Too many running gags. I can't pin one down.
Tim Spaeth: I'm not gonna tell you now. I'm a little hurt.
Chi Kong Lui: Hey, hey. You can't leave us hanging like that.
Tim Spaeth: Well, actually, it's not as funny as any of those, so that's why I'm not going to tell you. Let's talk about Dragon Age: Origins. Brad, how many hours did you drop into Dragon Age?
Brad Gallaway:All told, pretty close to 50. So that was a pretty solid commitment on my part. I don't usually like to put that much time into a single game, but I do do it on occassion. 50 hours for me.
Tim Spaeth: And let's cut to the chase. Was it worth it?
Brad Gallaway:I will say that it was worth it. Like I mentioned, I don't do that very often, because there are so many games that I feel just run out of reasons to keep playing well before that kind of time limit is reached. A lot of games I see these days, they're good for maybe five hours, maybe ten hours. For me, that's most games. Anything that runs longer than that is pushing it, just because it seems like developers come up with a couple good ideas that are maybe interesting and engaging, but they don't sustain the length of a really long game. That's especially true for things like RPGs, where they're expected to run really long.
In Dragon Age's case, I would say that it was good. The thing that was really good about it for me was really the story. If there's a game that has a really good story and really good characters, that's something that really compels me to stick around. 'Cause I wanna see what happens to them. I really wanna see what occurs: who lives, who dies, who hooks up with who. So if there's a game that has a really good story, that works for me. In Dragon Age's case it was done by BioWare, and as far as I'm concerned, they do story pretty much better than anyone else in the industry right now. That was my big reason for sticking around for that long.
Tim Spaeth: How far back do you go with your BioWare love? I know you played KOTOR, but do you go back further than that? Did you play Neverwinter Nights? Did you play Baldur's Gate? How far back do you go?
Brad Gallaway:Knights of the Old Republic is where I go. I've never played any of the older PC titles, and I'm sure that some of our audience is shrieking in disbelief. But I'm not much of a PC player. I've never been much of a PC player for a number of reasons. I'm really Mr. Console. So Knights of the Old Republic is where I started. I loved that one quite a bit, and I've played pretty much everything they've put out since then. And I've loved them all. They kinda take the same approach, but they do it so well it's hard not to go along with what they do.
Chi Kong Lui: It's sounds like your reaction's a little more positive than your initial impressions that I read over Twitter and on your blog posts. Is that the case now, that you're 50 hours in and it's actually sustained your interest for that long? Are you walking away more positive about it, or am I mischaracterizing your initial impressions?
Brad Gallaway:No. I think you're right, but for the purposes of this discussion, that was really the reason that kept me going forward and that's what kept me sticking around. I do have a lot of issues with it. It's not BioWare's best game, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think it's probably one of their worst. But with that said, a bad BioWare game is still better than a lot of other developers' best games. Even when they're slumming, they're still pretty good.
The game had a lot of technical issues, a lot of design problems with the way that it was ported from the PC to console. It definitely had a number of rough edges, and it wasn't like the gameplay was bowling me over. It was pretty discouraging at times; it was pretty disappointing at times, especially in comparison to the kind of combat people on the PC got. I was really let down with that.
But even with all that said, the story and the characters were good enough that I did end the game feeling good about the time that I'd spent with it. I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time. I wasn't bitter or anything at the end. But if it hadn't been for such great characters and great story, there's no way i would have put even a fraction of that much time into it.
Tim Spaeth: How much of the story is under your control? How much leeway do you have in determining where the characters end up? I guess where I'm going with that is: If it were a 40 hour story where you had very little control over what happens, versus a 40 hour story where you could basically determine who lives and who dies, and who you make sweet love to, and who you leave on the side of the road? Which side of the fence does Dragon Age fall on, and which do you prefer?
Brad Gallaway:That's actually a really good point. I'm really glad you brought that up, 'cause I was trying to think of how I could work that in. Dragon Age is one of those games that falls way, way, way on the side of the player's in control of the story. There's something ridiculous, like 20 different endings or 15 different endings or something like that. Really, you can go it alone; you don't have to have anybody join you if you don't want to. You can kill some of your own party members; some of them will leave if they don't like what you're doing.
There's, like, a million little choices along the way before the credits roll that you really have major, major impact on. You can take sides with different factions; you can choose to just ignore certain quests altogether. There's a huge amount of choice, and a lot of it is actually really significant to the storyline and to the ending that you get, and to your party and to the people that you meet, and who are your friends, and who's not, and who you have to kill and who you have to save.
Dragon Age is really ripe with a lot of really significant choices. In general the BioWare games are like that, which is probably why I like them as much as I do. If it had been more of a standard Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) where basically everything is scripted from start to finish and there's usually only one or two different endings, those ones I'm not so keen on anymore. They were good back in the day, when they were pretty much the only sort of game that had much of a story, but now that we have so much more choice, and now that Western developers have injected themselves in the process, the thought of spending 40 hours for a story just to unravel itself with the player having minimal impact is not really that appealing anymore—especially since it seems that so few writers these days are able to sustain something of that length.
In Dragon Age's case, it's not that the writing was really mind-blowing. It's pretty boilerplate for the fantasy genre. There are a lot of tropes in there that people will recognize from other stories, Lord of the Rings especially. But me having the choice was really what sold it to me. I love having that choice; I love making decisions; I love actually getting to play a role. That's something that I think a lot of games don't really capture these days.
Chi Kong Lui: Can you give us an example of one of the choices that you felt was kind of interesting?
Brad Gallaway:Oh, sure. There's actually plenty of them. There's a point in the game where you capture an evildoer who has been up to no good. You can either choose to bring him to justice with the local authorities; you can kill him right there on the spot, or he makes a number of offers to you and one of those offers is to teach you a kind of magic that's really powerful. So it would be to your benefit, offense-wise, if you took him up on his offer. But then you have to weigh: "What has he done? With me as a player, do I like the kind of activities that he's been doing? How would I feel if I let this guy go, knowing that he's done all these terrible things?"
So you have to weigh both sides of it: immediate gain or immediate justice? Do I take him up or not? And on top of that, depending on who you have in your party, a couple members in your party will have really strong negative reactions to you if you don't do what they see as the right thing. In my case, I always play pretty much as a lawful, good character because I'm just a softie that way. It's really hard for me to play an evil character.
Mike Bracken: Boring.
Brad Gallaway:But if you do choose to take this guy up on his offer and you learn this powerful black magic, then somebody who's actually a member of your team will all the sudden defect from your team. They will attack you and your only choice is to kill them at that point, because they're not gonna sit by and let you do this thing that they see as morally reprehensible.
There's actually a number of situations that arise like that where you really have to weigh the pros and the cons, the benefits and the downsides, and on top of that, who are you with? Who do you want to be in your party? Of those people, what are they like? So you really have to juggle all that stuff. To me, it was really, really intereting, and it really made up for a lot of the shortcomings of the actual gameplay. In this case, it was enough to keep me going.
Chi Kong Lui: And do you feel some of those choices affect the final outcome, when it's all said and done? 'Cause you said there were multiple endings as well, right?
Brad Gallaway:Oh, yeah, man. There were many points in the game where I was just agonizing—I was just paralyzed in front of the TV, like: "Who do I side with?" I was helping out the dwarves, which actually took quite a bit of time 'cause the dwarf quest is pretty long, and there's two points in that quest where you have to think really hard about who you're gonna support. Because it really has a major impact on the whole rest of the game and the whole rest of the dwarf quest. I can just remember sitting there thinking: "Oh my God, what do I do? The pros are this, and the cons are this; but I like this guy, but I don't like this guy; if I choose this side, than I'm gonna lose this option to go do this other thing." You really sit there for a few minutes and you just mull it over.
The thing about Dragon Age that I think is really cool, is that there's no real right answer. There's no point in the game when you just make the wrong choice and it's clearly the wrong choice. There's many ways to go. There's a point where you can save this kid who has become possessed by a demon. You can kill him right away and just be done with the quest, or you can have someone sacrifice themselves in his place, or you can go to this other place and get these guys to come back and help you to try to save everybody. It's time management; it's how much interest you have in this particular quest; it's: "What do you think the eventual outcome's gonna be?"
And it's really gratifying to get to the end of the game. They do a really good job of wrapping up all the different plot threads. So even a lot of decisions that you think are throwaway sidequests, they come back again at the end and you're like: "Oh! Well, this is what happened when I did so-and-so twice." It was really cool, and if I had more time, I would even consider going through a second time just to see the different outcomes. I actually don't have much time, but it would be really interesting, and I bet It would be significantly different. I can already think of a dozen different ways to play that would just change my experience altogether.
Tim Spaeth: Be honest: did you ever find yourself making a decision, watching the outcome, not being happy with the outcome, and then go back and restore a save and make the other decision?
Brad Gallaway:I only did that once, and I gotta be honest. When I play a game like this, I really commit myself to making the right choices. I don't wanna play it like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you can go back two pages and try again. The only time I did that was actually when the game glitched up on me and froze, and I was like: "Damn it!" So I went back and I changed a choice. I figured if the game's gonna glitch out on me, than I can renege on my promise to myself once and then I'll just keep going. It was actually a pretty different outcome, so I'm glad I got to see it. But I try not to do that.
Chi Kong Lui: I usually restart at the drop of a hat if I don't like the outcome. There's just too much time invested—I don't give a rat's ass, man. I don't conisder that cheating. I love seeing the different permutations, so to me that's a part of the experience and I love that. I don't have a problem making a committment, either, but if I'm really not happy with the result I hate regretting it and doing that over. So I'll always have multiple saves to get around it. I'll save one time after that one, and sometimes three times after that, just in case I can go back three decisions.
Mike Bracken: I've never played a game where the decisions were so nuanced that I couldn't tell what was the "good" or "evil" decision where I would actually have to go back and decide differently. Even Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, I always wanted to be evil in those games and the answers were so obvious. I guess maybe Dragon Age has a more subtle set of decisions to make for those sort of outcomes.
Brad Gallaway:I know what you mean about Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. It was pretty obvious. You come across somebody who needs help and it's like: "Give them ten dollars"—
Mike Bracken: —"Or kill them." Yeah. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway:Black and white. But I will say that in Dragon Age, there's very, very few instances where it's clear cut like that. And even if it seems clear cut at first, there's always a hook later on how it turns out like you didn't expect, or there's a twist that you didn't foresee. I will say that it's not nearly as clear cut as previous BioWare games have been. If you play through it, you will definitely spend at least a few minutes on each decision, really trying to think your options through. Or you can just reload a save.
Tim Spaeth: See, I was really hoping that you would say it was the combat system that compelled you to finish Dragon Age, because I've already decided not to play it 'cause I know Mass Effect 2 is coming out in a couple months. But now that you're talking about the story, I'm feeling like I might want to check this out. I really wish you weren't on the show tonight, Brad.
Brad Gallaway:You are right, though. Don't play it for the combat engine, because the combat engine on consoles is gimped. It's seriously gimped. It's trash. So if you wanted it for the combat system, skip it. But if you want it for the story and the choices, it's really, really a great game, as far as that goes. It's one of the top.
Tim Spaeth: I think we've got our first compelling element. That is, story and choicew of where the story goes.
Chi Kong Lui: That's actually two items for me, Tim. Those are two items on my list of things as well. Two things covered right there for me.
Tim Spaeth: Fantastic. Fantastic. Well, Brad, you're also playing Assassin's Creed II: Return of Assassin's Creed.
This is a game getting incredibly high marks, all sorts of just overflowing praise, and yet here you are on Twitter just complaining about it non-stop. Clearly, you have an agenda. What is your problem, man?
Brad Gallaway:[joking] I haven't received any of my royalty checks from Ubisoft, and therefore I'm protesting.
Tim Spaeth: Of course.
Brad Gallaway:You are actually right, Tim, in that I think my take on the game is a lot different from a lot of other people's incorrect takes.
Yeah, that's right. If you like Assassin's Creed, you're wrong. A lot of people came up to me because they knew that I intensely disliked the first one. It was a game that I really had looked forward to for at least six months before it came out. It was my number one most wanted; I was really looking forward to it, very excited. And when I got my hands on the first Assassin's Creed, I was like: "What? Is this it? Where's the rest of the game?" It was a real major, major disappointment; a real taste of sour in my mouth after that.
Knowing that, a lot of people came up to me and said: "Assassin's Creed II fixes everything that was wrong with the first game." That was exactly what I wanted to hear, honestly. 'Cause I think it had a lot of potential: the concept was good, the basic idea of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and killing dudes sounds very exciting. That was the thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that Ubisoft took all of the copious, overflowing amounts of player feedback from the first game and fixed it.
So I got my copy of Assassin's Creed II, all excited. I'm rubbing my hands in anticipation; got my comfy chair out; got my little Snuggie on, so I'm not too cold at night-time.
Mike Bracken: Did you get the new leopard-print one? Those are awesome.
Brad Gallaway:I have the zebra, actually. I even cut a little flap in the front, so I don't have to take it off when I pee.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. See, I was thinking: Maybe we should patent that, if we could piggyback onto their pateent, because that was the design flaw I saw as well.
Brad Gallaway:Yeah. Well, I fixed that particular problem; it's nice. And that's when you know you're dedicated gamers, when you cut a flap in clothes to pee.
Mike Bracken: Use your empty Mountain Dew bottle right there, so you don't even have to get up and go anywhere.
Brad Gallaway:You just one-upped there, Bracken. I'll have to get myself a Mountain Dew bottle.
Tim Spaeth: Now that's what I call compelling. How would Ubisoft feel about the majority of our Assassin's Creed II discussion being about urine?
Brad Gallaway:Exactly. I'm sure we'll be getting an e-mail about it tomorrow.
Chi Kong Lui: Kind of appropriate, actually, given Brad's comments. Let's get back on topic, now.
Brad Gallaway:Okay, so I sat down on the couch with a copy, and I'm all excited to see if all the rough edges have been ironed out, the gameplay's been deepend, they've fixed all the bugs and stuff. Okay, now. This is the exact same game as the first game, and their slew of "improvements" were to shove in a bunch of stuff that I don't really give a rip about: all these extra different types of sidequests. They're not even really that varied. There's only maybe four or five different types, and once you've done one, then you know what all the rest of them are gonna play out like. There's minor variations, but they're all basically the same thing.
They give you a series of properties to manage. You have this little villa tht you live in when you're not doing levels, and so you can invest a lot of money and soup up the buildings that you have, and invite the Thieves' Guild back in your town and give the tailor a better shop to work in and that kinda stuff. Who fucking cares, man? The game is called Assassin's Creed. It's not called I'm Your Landlord.
Mike Bracken: It's not SimCity.
Brad Gallaway:Yeah. I don't really want a money system in that game. I don't really wanna have to revamp somebody's fucking house. I wanna kill people in a cool way and have a lot of fun. I want a lot of action. It's called Assassin's Creed. That's what that title says to me.
Honestly, it's the exact same game with a bunch of extra fluff crammed in, and they didn't really address any of my initial criticisms about the first game. I'm sitting here wondering how it is that everybody in the game reviewing sphere seems to think that this is a brand new game—I've seen a lot of people say Game of the Year. I'm like: "Are you fucking high? What are you smoking, that this game seems to you like Game of the Year? There have been so many outstanding games that really break new ground or bring something new to the table. This rehash with a few little sim elements added into it is gonna be your Game of the Year? I have no idea what those people are talking about. I honestly don't.
Mike Bracken: I haven't played it, but the vibe I get from the people who are raving about it is that a) the first Assassin's Creed set the bar so low that anything that improves upon it is: "Oh, my God! This is so great now, because we all hated the first game so much, because it was such a disappointment." And b) people were so disappointed by the first game that now they have to pump this one up, because we saw it at E3 and it looked so much better, and we wanted it to be so much better that now we're just willing to convince ourselves that it's better.
I 'd heard the same thing about the side missions, and I'm like: "That's the same shit we did in the first game that sucked. Why do I have to do this again?" When you saw the E3 trailers, they're showing you flying around the city and all this crap which looked really cool, but I hear something about collecting feathers or something now. You're mentioning the landlord thing. Dude, I don't wanna do that. If you can't make a fucking game called Assassin's Creed where I just go around assassinating people, then don't bother.
Brad Gallaway:See, that's what I think. If you're gonna call a game Assassin's Creed, make it about assassinating. If not, then call it something else and I will know not to choose that game. It's really ridiculous, and I think that your enjoyment of this title is directly related to how enjoyable you think running along rooftops is. It's cool in trailers; in 30-second bursts, it's awesome. You look at a video of this game and you're like: "Wow! This looks very action-packed."
Mike Bracken: That was the same problem the first game had. The first time you climb up some impossibly tall thing and then dive off of it into the haystack, it's amazing. But then I have to do that same thing for another 15 hours? The same canned animations for the fighting system and all that? If it's more of that, then I don't wanna play it.
Chi Kong Lui: Wasn't the main complaint about the first game that it was just too repetitive? You had to do the same tasks over and over again. So did they address that in any kind of way in the sequel?
Brad Gallaway:Yes and no. Assassin's Creed II is better than Assassin's Creed for a couple of reasons, but it's like Bracken said: it's better because the first one sucked. It was so terrible, it's hard to not be better. The main problem with this game is repetition. The entire game is based on this engine that lets the player climb buildings and scale walls. It's great; it's a really great idea; it's kind of cool-looking, but there's no skill involved. All you're basically doing is holding down a button and pushing a direction. You don't have to time your jumps; you don't really have to be very precise. It's running on autopilot the whole time you're doing that.
You can only do so many tasks that involve climbing buildings. The game doesn't handle interiors very well. It's like a big collect-a-thon. Granted, a lot of it's optional: there's 100 feathers that are scattered throughout the city that you can find if you want to. If your noteriety rises because you've killed somebody and the cops are after you, you can track down these wanted posters and theoretically, by tearing down the wanted posters, you lower your noteriety&mdassh;although why the posters are on a sheer side of a building three stories up where no one can see it, I don't know.
Everything in the game revolves around climbing. If it doesn't revolve around climbing, there's nothing there. The game runs out of steam really quick, and it falls back on its old habits of being really repetitive:. You go into a new city, your map is blank. So you find a really tall tower, climb to the top of it, see what you can see, drop down and climb the next tower, so you can fill in the little squares of your map. Or you have to climb this place because somebody has to be killed on this ledge.
There's only so much you can do without really changing the fundamental makeup of the game. What the game is now is far too shallow and far too limited to provide any kind of really captivating experience, which brings me back to our overarching topic. Besides story, there's other things that keep me going in games. I really wanna see where the game goes in terms of development. What new tricks are they gonna pull out of the bag? What twists to the gameplay? What new challenges are going to come down the pike?
You take a set of characters and their moves, and then apply them to different situations, and that's where you get a lot of gameplay. In a game like Assassin's Creed, once you understand how the climbing and the jumping works—which only takes a few minutes—and once you understand that everything you do is gonna revolve around climbing or jumping, there's not really a lot to keep you going in the game. I'm two-thirds of the way through now and I will finish it just for the sake of being able to say that I finished it, because I don't wanna have to deal with the same bullshit from people at the site who say: "You can't talk about the game 'cause you didn't finish it."
But if I wasn't reviewing it, I would stop. I would stop and say: "This is really boring, because there's nothing left to see in this game. It's all just variations on the same couple themes; there's no new twists to the gameplay; the story's actually really, really boring and just really stilted and dull."
Mike Bracken: The first game's story was terrible, too.
Chi Kong Lui: As you're talking about this game, I keep thinking of the one series that's near and dear to all our hearts: the Hitman series, which is also about killing folks. Why don't you compare and contrast those games? What is it about Hitman that's so much more compelling than Assassin's Creed?
Brad Gallaway:It's not even a discussion. Before the first game came out, I was hoping that there would be similar themes. Hitman is so much more complex. It relates back to the Dragon Age thing—in Hitman you have a number of choices. In one of my favorite Hitman levels, you arrive at this English manor and your target is inside at the far end. If you have a sniper rifle with you, you can climb to one of the first buildings you see. If you can get a clear line of sight, you can snipe him right away. Or you can climb into the guy's cellar and you can poison his brandy, and the butler will come down and take the brandy up and it'll kill him. Or you can get a gas can, go on top of the guy's roof, drop it down his fireplace and have a fire bomb inside his bedroom; or you can grab a pillow and wait until he goes to sleep and then you can sneak down on his balcony and smother him, or you can just kill everybody in the entire level, walk straight through his front door and put a cap in his head.
Even though the game is about killing, just from that one level, there's six or eight different ways to progress through it; and there's lots of choices, lots of complexity, lots of richness to that gameplay. With Assassin's Creed, because everything revolves around the main character climbing and and leaping, most of the assassinations you have are in some place that's really high up; or you have climb over something that's really tall and get to a place that's filled with enemies.
There's not nearly the same level of sophistication in the engine; not in the way to take out your enemies. I'm sure we're gonna get a piece of e-mal saying: "You don't know what you're talking about. There's all these different ways to kill people." There's not really. Hitman is like Encyclopedia Britannica, and Assassins Creed II is like See Dick and Jane. It's not even remotely on the same level.
Tim Spaeth: So, if we had to identify an element that deters you from wanting to finish a game—you flat-out said that you wouldn't finish if you weren't writing a review—repetition? Lack of variety? How would we phrase that?
Brad Gallaway:You run out of ideas. You don't have any new way to implement your gameplay; you don't have any new situations; you don't have any new twists to the formula. If you're gonna have three actions in your game, then your game should be an hour long. If you're gonna try to support something that's as long as Assassin's Creed II (and I've heard people say 20-plus hours) I need a lot more complexity; I need a lot more application of your core elements. I think it's really lacking.
Mike Bracken: I'm always hesitant to say "repetition," 'cause I can think of so many games where you do repetitive things, but they're actually fun, so you don't mind. I hate to pigeonhole repetition as a negative.
Chi Kong Lui: Right.
Tim Spaeth: That's true. We will see, later in the show, how repetition can be a wonderful thing.
Chi, you've been playing the least well-known game of everything we're gonna talk about this week: Way of the Samurai 3. I'll be honest; until you mentioned you were playing it, I hadn't heard of it.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, I was gonna say it's completely unknown.
Tim Spaeth: It is completely unknown. Talk about this game: 70 hours I think you've put into this?
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, that's what the counter tells me. As it came out of my mouth, I was a little surprised myself.
Way of the Samurai 3 is the sequel to Way of the Samurai 2. Ha, ha, stole your joke there, Tim.
Tim Spaeth: Aw! Criminal. You plagiarist.
Chi Kong Lui: This is a series that's crept into my Top 10 list. I don't think I've updated my list, but it should go up there. It's really flown under the radar. The premise is, you're basically in an Akira Kurosawa film. You take on the role of a ronin samurai in a small town. You can influence events similar to the way Brad was talking about Dragon Age. It's just an incredible amount of choice. It's funny that Brad is praising Dragon Age—one of the newest games—for those amount of choices, because Way of the Samurai had those amount of choices way back. The first game, I think, is over ten years old now. They were doing that a long time before.
The problem with part 3 is that, if you start off with part 3, it doesn't seem as innovative as it was back then, which is unfortunate. But I still like the third part anyway, 'cause it's still hits a lot of beats that I like anyway.
Tim Spaeth: Chi, let me ask you this, just so we understand the general gameplay. If you had to compare it to a game that's much more well-known, is it like a Grand Theft Auto-type open world format? What are you actually doing in the game?
Chi Kong Lui: Unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto is the game it's most compared to, because this game is so hard to characterize. It's really unique in its own way. The only thing it shares with Grand Theft Auto is that it uses a third-person behind the back view and it has these sandbox-like elements. But comparing Grand Theft Auto to Way of the Samurai is like comparing King's Field to Doom. It just does not capture what makes this game special in my mind. The pacing is completely different.
The main way it differs from Grand Theft Auto—and I guess this is a good way to talk about it, because it highlights why this game is so much more interesting to me than Grand Theft Auto—is that the choices actually have real world impact. In the different gangs in Grand Theft Auto, you really don't deviate your alliances depending on how you behave in the game. You just sort of follow along the story. I'm not sure if that was the same with part 4, 'cause I didn't play all the way through on it. But certainly it was true of all the other Grand Theft Autos, where there's all these rival factions and everything, but your actions don't really affect how the relationships behave differently between each of the different gangs.
That's definitely not the case with Way of the Samurai. Way of the Samurai also is more of a short game, in the sense that it's encouraging you to play through it differently because there's all these multiple different endings—I think 20 different endings for part 3.
Tim Spaeth: And is this a series that has a big cult following? Obviously, it's made it to the third game so clearly, somebody is playing it. But would you characterize it as having an Atlus-like following?
Chi Kong Lui: I think so. It's huge in Japan, I think. It's just one of those games like Dynasty Warriors that's so culturally ingrained. It captures the feeling of being in Japan at that time period so well, and it's obviously, again, based on that Akira Kurosawa reference. A lot of Japanese people, I think, just really enjoy that aspect of it.
Over here, I think it's definitely found a cult following. I know certain people at our site enjoyed it. Unfortunately, with part 3, I don't think it's gonna capture a lot of new fans. It gets off to a really rough start. One of the things that was great about the first game and probably the second game as well is that, right off the bat, you're posed some interesting choices that really demonstrate how you can affect the world. You don't get that in the beginning of part 3.
Unfortunately, the first thing thazt you're probably gonna encounter is that you'll get this one mission from this grandmother, who tells you to find your underwear, and that's it. So I was like: "Okay, this is not quite the start I was thinking about." But once you get past all that, the usual beats that I enjoy about the series shine through. Like I said before, there's multiple endings; there's this whole sword-collecting aspect where you forge different swords. It's like an encyclopedia of samurai swordfighting. There's all these different stances; there's this countless amount of different swords with different attributes that you can upgrade.
One really unique aspect of the first game was,like Demon's Souls, the deaths were just soul-crushing. If you died, that was it. Your game was over. There were only two save checkpoints throughout the game, and once you were done, you were done.You even lost all your swords on top of that, which was really heartbreaking.They softened that in part 2, and even more so in part 3: there's multiple save points in different areas, and you don't lose your swords when you die. It still feels more impactful than other games when you die, so I still appreciated that.
Tim Spaeth: I have to come back to that number, 'cause it's such a large number: 70 hours. What has kept you going for 70 hours?
Chi Kong Lui: The sword-collecting aspect of it: upgrading your swords and learning new skills, that's really kept me going for a long period of time. Earilier you wanted Brad to talk about the combat aspect of Dragon Age, and that's sort of the case here—where the actual gameplay for me is really compelling. Not only is the combat really engaging, but to me it's about character growth and being able to customize my gameplay style. I think Way of the Samurai does that really well. Instead of upgrading your health and your attack, the attack and defense stats that you normally upgrade in other games are attached to your sword, so you have to upgrade those aspects of your sword.
Like I was saying earlier, there's different stances and different types of swords that you can use, so you can play the game where you find the sword that you like and it just goes on and on. I keep wanting to get one other sword, upgrading that sword and then seeing how that sword handles. Then you have to learn the moves. So that was what kept me really addicted to it. Add the fact that there were 20 different ending; I've already gone through 10 of them.
The other aspect of the series that's really underrated is going back to the point that Brad brought up: the characters. I really enjoy the characters in the game. They're all uniquely drawn; they all have interesting motivations; you wanna root for each one and see how the different endings play out with each one, depending on how you act. That's the other reason why I kept playing, as well.
Tim Spaeth: Does the upgrading of the swords change the gameplay fundamentally? Does it really make that much of a difference, that you would want to go back and learn Sword Technique A and then Sword Technique B and then C? Is it really that different?
Chi Kong Lui: Probably not. If you got one powerful sword, you could probably blow through the game and that'd be it; you could keep using that same sword over and over again. But I'm a fan of martial arts, so, again, I just enjoy that aspect of collecting swords.
Tim Spaeth: And do you find that's true of not just this game, but other games like this where you might…I don't wanna use the word "obsess over"—
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] You guys know I have an unhealthy obsession with Pokémon, so there you go. But then again, you guys shouldn't be talking, with your MMO addictions. It definitely falls more in the line of addiction; I don't deny that. I think that's one aspect of it. The swordfighting is really entertaining for me, being a martial arts fan. I'm just reslly interested in Japanese culture as well, so the ability of that game to capture the setting and take me to different places really feeds into that whole notion of creating this world for me, which is sort of what Brad was saying with the open-ended choices—but I think, open-ended choices with impact to the game world, that has world consequences, is what really fascinates me.
I wanted to go off on one small tangent. I don't know if you guys ever played Law of the West for the Commodore 64?
Tim Spaeth: No.
Mike Bracken: No.
Chi Kong Lui: I had a mini-epiphany at an early age, because that was a game where you play like a Western, and the characters come out and you can instantly shoot them or you can interact with them. You can play through the whole game where the minute they come out you shoot them, and that's it. Whenever that happened, you get a gleam in your eye. You really feel that power of choice. It's kind of intoxicating, that you can control all this. You don't have to do it, and if you don't shoot them you can engage in a series of entertaining conversations and resolve conflicts and things like that. But just the idea that you can impact this world and have that control is what really stuck with me. I still look for that in a lot of these games. I see that with games like Wing Commander, even to some extent MechWarrior, but that's why I like games like Way of the Samurai.
Mike Bracken: I just looked up Law of the West on Youtube, and I have played it. I had a friend who had a little crappy computer. It must've been a Commodore; I thought it was an Apple, but yes, I have played that game.
Chi Kong Lui: It claims to be the first game to use dialog trees.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, I totally remember that game now. I thought that's what it was when you said it, but I had to look.
Tim Spaeth: All right. Chi, if we had to summarize Way of the Samurai 3 and specifically what you find so compelling: interest in the setting, the choices you make having consequences on that locale. What else would you add to that, as we move on here?
Chi Kong Lui: The only thing I wanted to add to that is the character growth and the customizable gameplay style, where you can play the game how you wanna play it. I think that's important for me.
Tim Spaeth: Mike, you and I have both been playing a little PC title called Torchlight.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. I'm definitely liking Torchlight. It's like if Diablo and World of Warcraft got together and fucked like rabbits and made a baby game.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] You just totally ripped off James Franco from Pineapple Express.
Mike Bracken: I saw that. I'm good. I don't even remember that line, so I'm the best kind of plagarist: the unwitty plagiarist. If Diablo and World of Warcraft got together and had a kid, it would be Torchlight. Which is fitting, since there are a lot of ex-Blizzard guys who worked on this game.
Basically, it's a Diablo clone. Over the years, we've all heard countless stories of games that were going to be the next Diablo, and some of them, like Hellgate: London, even involved people who'd worked for Blizzard. So they were supposed to really be the "real deal"-type thing. They were always disappointing.
Torchlight is the first game I have played in a long time that actually gets the Diablo formula right, and does it with World of Warcraft-style graphics. The story, like Diablo, is pretty unimportant. This game is not something you pick up and start playing because you wanna follow an engrossing I'm almost done with the game—I couldn't even tell you what the story is at this point.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: I know there's something to do with this big dungeon under the town and you're going down there, and there's something going on with these stones that are making this guy evil, and you're supposed to kill shit, basically. The real point of the game, like all Diablo clones, is to level grind and get phat loot. Since I am a loot whore and level grinder of the first order, this is very appealing to me.
It's just a lot of fun. The funny thing about Torchlight, to me, is: Diablo is cool because you can play with other people, and Torchlight doesn't let you play with other people. They only built a single-player game, so you can't team up with friends and go on cow runs like you could in Diablo II. You're pretty much on your own. When I first started playing, I thought: "Man, that's gonna be kind of a bummer. This game's gonna get really old really fast if it's just single player." But I've been playing for 14 hours so far, and I'm not bored at all. I guess multiplayer isn't as big a deal for this kind of game as I thought it was.
The only thing that disappoints me a little bit about the game is that I have made it almost to the bottom of the dungeon and I'm playing on Hard mode (I started on Hard), the drops of loot are random and I haven't found any equipment that makes me excited yet. I thought by the time you get to the end of the game on Hard, you should've found at least one or two really awesome things. So far, the loot's all been kind of generic, which is a bit of a downer.
Other than that, if you're really into the whole hack-and-slash thing and picking up loads of crap and doing little quests and slaughtering stuff wholesale, Torchlight is really fun, and you're only gonna pay 20 bucks for it, so that's like an extra bonus. You're getting what is basically a full-fledged Diablo clone minus the multliplayer for a fraction of what you would expect to pay for that kind of game. Tim, you wanna jump in and share what you thought of it?
Tim Spaeth: I don't think I'm quite as far into the game as you are. I've been playing it much more casually, and that's one of the things I really love about this. There is virtually no barrier to the pick up and play aspect of it, because, as you said, there's no story that you're invested in. I can go two weeks without playing it, jump right back in where I left off, hop in for 15 minutes, kill some stuff, leave, and have a completely satisfying experience.
In fact, you don't even have to do the main dungeon. You can purchase random dungeon maps from vendors and if you just wanna go through and play a random map, kill some bosses, grab some loot and be done with it, that works out really well. Given that it's a PC game and I only own a laptop, late at night while my wife is watching television I don't have time for a large three hour PC game investment. This is perfect for me.
You mentioned it's a $20 game. It sure feels like a $20 game sometimes. Tehe voice acting is sporadic; it's pretty poor. A few bugs I've found—some loot that doesn't do quite what it says it does. But again, it does push all those Diablo buttons. We've talked a lot about loot games over these 27 episodes. What is it, Mike, that you think is so compelling about loot? Why do we desire it so?
Mike Bracken: I've thought about this for a long time, and I had it figured out at one point. Then Torchlight came along and totally fucked up my thesis on this topic. For me, it started with Phantasy Star Online and Diablo. I just wanna play games where I get cooler and cooler shit. It made sense, because you want this shit to show off how cool you are, because you're playing in an online world with other people. They see that you have this cool stuff, and it's like: "Ooh, that guy's awesome! He's got a Demolition Comet!"
So, I thought: "Yeah, that makes sense." You go get this stuff because your e-penis gets bigger. I'm thinking all this time that why this appeals to me is it's just a chance to show people that you've accomplished something in this game, and that you've played enough to get this cool shit and everything.
But then, Torchlight comes along. There's nobody to show off to. Granted, I haven't gone at Torchlight as hard as I would at something like Phantasy Star or World of Warcraft. I've gone at a much more leisurely pace with Torchlight. But the allure is still there, and I don't really know why it appeals to me in a single player game. I guess it's just this feeling that there's stuff out there and I wanna have the best shit whether anybody can see it or not. I have this fascination with creating god characters who just destroy everything in their path; you have to get good loot to do that, and get to the point where you just finally break the game because you kill everything in one hit.
Chi Kong Lui: I think you hit it right there, Mike. It's about empowerment, and it's not important whether other people see that or not. I think it's a nice bonus—it's sort of like the gravy on top—but I said the same thing about the swords I was collecting in Way of the Samurai. Ultimately, you feel like there's some sense of empowerment there.
Mike Bracken: That's a good point, and I totally would agree with it. Again, we talk about repetition being a bad thing, and here's Torchlight and Diablo: you go into a dungeon and you click your mouse button over and over to slaughter things. At some point, you don't even click it— you just target something and hold it until it's dead. The thing does it for you, which would seem like it would be totally unsatisfying, because it's not even super interactive. But yet, the fact that everything you kill has the potential to drop this really awesome item that nobody else has.
Chi Kong Lui: By the way, the swords in Way of the Samurai are completely random as well. I think randomness is a huge factor.
Mike Bracken: It's funny, 'cause Phantasy Star Online was not random. It had loot tables based on what ID your character had. Different monsters dropped different items, and they had the odds figured out. I'm not even a math geek, but that stuff appeals to me for some reason.
Brad Gallaway:I'm trying to draw a parallel between the feeling that you're describing and what I was talking about in my segments. I have played loot games and I really like Diablo, so I'm cool with games like that. What I get out of those games is different than what I get out of Dragon Age. But would you say that the feeling of getting new loot is almost the same thing that I feel is missing in Assassin's Creed? I know what's coming, and I know there's not gonna be any surprises; therefore I lose the will to keep going. If you knew that you were only gonna get a certain type of loot and tehre was nothing else that you would get, would you still feel the same compulsion?
Mike Bracken: I don't know that I would. If you reach the point where you have the best stuff and there was never going to be anything better, there's definitely a feeling of: "Why would I continue to play this?" You see that happen in the MMOs as well. In World of Warcraft, you will get to a point where you've got the tier 8 set in its entirety, and there's nothing else better out there until the next expansion. When guys get that stuff, they suddenly aren't online nearly as much as they were before they had it. Yeah, there's definitely that, even though they're vastly different kinds of games. The fact that you think that there's maybe something better that you can get out of this if you keep playing certainly adds to why you continue playing.
Brad Gallaway:The feeling that Mike describes—the feeling that if you had the best stuff there's nothing else—is how I feel about Assassin's Creed. Once you master the basic moves and you've seen the sidequests, it's like getting the best stuff. You've already seen the best stuff in the game; so for the next ten hours, you're just gonna be repeating the same best stuff. There's gotta be something else out there. You've gotta have this goal to work towards. In my particular case, my goal is to see a new situation, a new twist, a new interesting thing happen. In something like Torchlight, it's "I hope to get that next drop I'm looking for—that next sword or something." So even though they're wildly different styles, one thing that keeps all of us coming back is that drive towards the next level of whatever it is that we're playing.
Chi Kong Lui: It's a reward. Ultimately, it's about what kind of reward you're getting.
Brad Gallaway:To clarify, is it a reward in the sense that it's a thing? It's an item? Or can it be an experience, too?
Chi Kong Lui: Exactly. It's like how you were beautifully describing Hitman. those are just gameplay rewards, where you're getting these different situations.
Brad Gallaway:Yeah, I would agree with that. Mike? Tim? What do you guys think?
Mike Bracken: Yeah, I'm definitely there with that. It totally makes sense to me.
Tim Spaeth: When I get to talking about the game I'm going to talk about, I have three things on my list: one is Power, the next is Reward. The interesting thing that happened to me with Torchlight—there is so much loot, that at a point I actually stopped looking at the loot. I was instead looking at the color of the loot.
Mike Bracken: Yes.
Tim Spaeth: Blizzard has conditioned us to know that green loot is not as good as blue loot is not as good as purple loot. I'm literally just looking at the font, and I'm getting excited about the font: "It's purple! I get the tweak! It's orange! I get the uber-tweak!" I got to the point where I didn't even care what the object was; I was just excited that something orange dropped.
Mike Bracken: If my character has an orange belt and orange boots and I get better blue stuff levels later, I'm hesitant to swap that stuff out, because you can't swap an orange for a blue, man. That's retarded. Why would you do that?
Chi Kong Lui: Complementary colors.
Tim Spaeth: I also wanna talk about the random factor. The thing I enjoy most about Torchlight is the enchanter. Basically, you take a piece of equipment; you give it to the enchanter, and you pay to have a random enchantment put on it. It could be anything—extra ice damage, extra strength, plus to your dexterity. It's a completely random thing.
Each time you take an item to the enchanter, the odds that it will remove all of the enchantments increase. The first time you do it, there's a zero percent chance that you'll lose your enchantments; but then the tenth time you do it, there's a 15 percent chance. That right there? That's gambling. That's the juice I get from playing poker.
Mike Bracken: The other gambling in the game is tht you spend time going to the vendor who sells stuff that you can't tell what enchantments it has. It's a risk; you could get something really awesome, or you could get something that really sucks. I spend a lot of time there, too.
Chi Kong Lui: Way of the Samurai is very similar. To upgrade the swords, you have to take them to the blacksmith. To get the best upgrades, you have to choose the random option and you just never know what you're gonna get. Sometimes it could be negative ten on the attack, negative ten on the defense. Sometimes you could get the highest rating on attack and defense, which is plus 15. Any time I wouldn't get the result I wanted, I'd have to go back to that saved game and do it over again.
Mike Bracken: See, in Torchlight, you can't do that. It auto-saves so you can't go back and reload. You're just fucked if you lose some great item enchantments, or buy something and it ends up sucking. That makes it even extra exciting for me, I guess.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Right.
Brad Gallaway:It's funny you guys mention that, because I am not a gambling person at all. I hate gambling.
Mike Bracken: I'm not either, except in video games. Because I can do it and there's no real repercussions. I gamble vicariously, because my uncle is a huge gambler and bets on sports every day of the week.I gamble vicariously through him, but I could never bet my own money. In games, there's no real punishment for losing.
Chi Kong Lui: Brad, I think you don't like the idea of gambling, and certainly, I don't either. But I think there's definitely a human compulsion in all of us that finds aspects of it addictive, and certainly we turn to video games to satisfy that compulsion. I think it's a much healthier way of doing it.
Brad Gallaway:It kind of is, but I see it as gambling with my time. If I make a choice that may turn out in my favor or may not, I think about how many hourse I've put in to get to the point where I'm at. If it's some stupid item that's really no big deal, that's fine. But if it's a major item that I've really been working towards, or if it's gonna be a thousand dollars of in-game money, I'll be like: "No way! I'm not gonna risk that, because I've already spent six hours playing this game." My real investment's time.
I hear what you guys are saying and I totally agree that every human being does feel that urge of: "I might get a big win if I do just this one roll of the dice, this next hand of cards." But I hate that. So I totally stay away from any game that has luck or gambling.
Chi Kong Lui: But what I'm saying is, if you scan the part of the brain that gets stimulated from gambling versus these item drops that we're talking about, it's the same part of the brain. It's just less risky and you're not gambling on our homes and the lives of our children or anything like that.
Tim Spaeth: It all comes down to the risk-reward ratio. For me, I am a gambler. I love gambling; I love poker; I love blackjack. I'm not great at any of them, but I love them. A lot of why I play games, it tweaks the same part of my brain. It stimulates that same part, like you said, Chi. I forget that it really doesn't matter when I'm playing a video game, and then I sometimes forget tht it really does matter when I'm playing poker for money. That's when things get dangerous.
Chi Kong Lui: Tim, is this yet another vice that we're hearing about now?
Tim Spaeth: I've got tons of them.
Mike Bracken: Tim has a lot of vices.
Tim Spaeth: When we've got a couple hours, I'll share them with you. Any other thoughts about Torchlight, Mike, that you wanted to share?
Mike Bracken: If you're out there and you've been like: "Damn, I could really go for a good Diablo-style lootfest and I don't feel like waiting until Blizzard finally decides to give us Diablo III," this game is as close to that classic Diablo experience as you're gonna get until Diablo III comes out. For 20 bucks, pick it up on Steam; it's cheap, and it will definitely give you 20 hours of entertainment, minimum.
Chi Kong Lui: What makes Torchlight more Diablo-like than, say, World of Warcraft? That's Diablo-like, also, right?
Mike Bracken: Well, World of Warcraft's hard to call Diablo-like, since it's a massively multiplayer game. If you compare it to things like Hellgate: London…The only good Diablo clones that I have played were Record of Lodoss War on the Dreamcast; I liked the first Shining Force Neo on the PS2. I can't tell you what Diablo has that a lot of these games are missing.
I come back to Hellgate: London all the time, because I had such high hopes for it since it had guys from Blizzard who ended up working on it. The setting wasn't right and the gameplay was clunky. For as repetitive and simplistic as Diablo is, what it does, it does extremely well. The combat is not complicated but it works flawlessly, and the game mechanics of going into these randomly generated dungeons and just beating the holy hell out of everything works really well and it's very satisfying.
With a game like Hellgate: London, I think you sometimes see that they overthink it, whereas Diablo and Torchlight are incredibly simple. They think: "Now we have to take that and expand upon it and make it more complicated, because these games are too simple and people want something that's more involved." We don't, really. I just want something that's fun; if it's simple and fun, that's as good to me as if it's complicated and fun.
Chi Kong Lui: As you say that, that's the knock in Assassin's Creed II. It just doesn't focus on the one thing that you wanted to do the most, which is just kill folks in a fun kind of way.
Mike Bracken: That was definitely the problem with the first game. It tried to give you 75 other things to do that weren't fun. But yeah, I think that's what Diablo had done so well: it took something simple but it did it really well. Everyone else just tries to complicate it, and in the process of doing that fucks it up.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. I don't wanna throw around the word "literally," but Torchlight is literally Diablo with better graphics and 12 years of interface enhancements. It is the exact same game.
Mike Bracken: It's literally Diablo with WoW's interface and graphics, and it takes the talent trees from both games. Everybody's shoulder pads look like fucking car fenders, like they do in World of Warcraft. But it works. Millions of people love World of Warcraft; millions of people love *Diablo, and this game merges them into one in a really satisfying way that isn't complicated and you can just pick up and play and have a good time with.
Tim Spaeth: We are running very long, so I'm gonna talk a little bit about Borderlands DLC that came out earlier this week: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned. [Joking] As you guys well know, I have had wonderful things to say about Borderlands. I've never had a negative thing to say about it.
Brad Gallaway:[Joking] Me, neither, Tim; me, neither.
Tim Spaeth: Our passion for it has just been unbridled. But I do wanna talk about why I turned around on Borderlands, 'cause it ties very nicely into this topic. Just a few thoughts on this expansion. It takes place on an island, which is separate from the main game's main land mass; you can only Fast Travel to it using the Borderlands Fast Travel system.
The first thing you're going to notice is that it is far from barren and apocalyptic-looking, nothing like the rest of Borderlands. It is a dark, spooky forest; there are full moons, haunted mansions, Jack-o'-Lanterns. Everything you would expect from Halloween content—of course, it came out the week of Thanksgiving. When *Borderlands was delayed, this was also delayed. It was supposed to come out in October. Nevertheless, it is a Halloween-themed expansion.
I don't wanna spoil the plot, because it's actually quite good. Unlike much of Borderlands, this has a very clear narrative. Suffice it to say, there is a doctor whose name is Ned, who may or may not be involved in the creation of thousands upon thousands of zombies. In general, your goal is to get to the bottom of why the zombies are there and to resolve the situation.
In terms of gameplay, it is, essentially, more Borderlands. There are quests; there is killing; there is loot. But what I noticed right away is that the writing in this writing in this expansion is much sharper. It's really much more clever than anything you will find in the main game. It's funny; it's witty; there are as many cutscenes in this four-hour expansion as you will find in the entire 25-hour Borderlands experience.
I had an absolute blast with it. Like I said, it's about four hours; I played it in one sitting. The bosses in this thing, fantastic. Lots of classic horror movie bosses, Mike Bracken. Frankenstein, Wolfman, they're all in there. It's really well-thought through. I can't recommend it enough if you like Borderlands. I didn't like Borderlands for the first ten hours or so. Now, after having played it for about 30 hours, I can't say enough good things about it.
The question is: Why did I come around on it? The beginning of Borderlands is terrible. You are completely gimped at the beginning of that game. You have a crappy rifle; you have no powers; no vehicles; no Fast Travel.You're doing incredibly dull quests in this generic, empty landscape. But most problematic, you have absolutely no indication that all of those terrible things will eventually change.
At the time we recorded the Borderlands podcast, I hadn't hit that point. It was around the 12-hour mark that a whole bunch of good things started to happen, and they all kind of converged around the ssme time. You do start getting very interesting firearms: shotguns that fire missiles, submachine guns with acid bullets and regenerating ammunition. Your talent tree starts to fill out; you get very cool powers. My character can turn invisible, and when she enters that invisibility mode, she creates this Fire Nova explosion that burns everything within a ten meter radius.
The storyline does start to ramp up; it gets a little more interesting. You get more varied environments. There are snow levels; there are islands and boats and construction sites. You get Fast Travel; you get vehicles. Most importantly, you start burning through the quests much, much faster, and they're just these boring, World of Warcraft-style fetch-quests. You really make a lot of progress.
Progress is one of the three elements that make for a compelling game for me. But the question is: Why did I wait it out that long? 12 to 14 hours is way too long to wait for a game to get good. Brad, you rightly bailed, because no one should have to play a game that long to get payoff. Why did I wait it out? Honestly, I paid 60 bucks for it.
Chi Kong Lui: That was my first guess.
Tim Spaeth: I paid 60 bucks for it, and I wanted my money's worth. I was determined to find something to like. I was determined to get value out of it, and I just got lucky that I really did get a lot of value. I alao understand why the multiplayer is so successful. Through multiplayer, you can get to that sweet spot much faster.
Let me break down the three factors I keep mentioning. The first one is progress. When I play a game—and once you get to that sweet spot in Borderlands, this happens—every time I sit down to play a game, I need to make meaningful progress. Levelling is not suffficient. It needs to be progress in story, progress in gear, powers. For me, every session needs a climax. I can never stop until I hit some sort of goal, whether it's getting that piece of gear or hitting that next story moment.
I think the best games communicate what that progress is going to be. I don't think any game has done this better than Sid Meier's Civilization, which I can't even believe is approaching nearly 20 years of age. Just the technology tree alone in that game: if you play four more turns, you will get pottery; if you play six more turns, you will discover masonry. If you get pottery, you get grainaries; if you get grainaries, you can build the Great Pyramids. It lays it all out. The game doesn't hide any of that informtion. It's very explicit.
In that way, I have a roadmap, and I really like games that give me that roadmap. I don't like unlocking things, but if I do have to unlock things, I want to know explicitly how to do it. I want it to be part of the gameplay experience.
Chi Kong Lui: Although we explained that randomnes can be addictive, in the right context.
Tim Spaeth: Absolutely. But I think knowing how you get to a certain point can also be very addictive.
Chi Kong Lui: I think that as it pertains to progress, like you're saying, yeah, that's very necessary.
Tim Spaeth: We talked about power, and empowerment is very important. I talk about how much I like to destroy things on this show all the time. It's a very physical thing for me. I like when tiny actrions I make with my hands result in massive destruction on the screen. I don't know exactly what the psychological thing is, but it's a big part of why Too Human is so appealing to me. With one flick of the right stick, your character just hurls himself across the screen and kills 20 goblins at once.
To me, that's almost like a godlike level of power. Mike, you mentioned that you have this obsession with god characters, and for me, that's a big part of it as well. But I don't mean godlike in terms of Populous; I like the physical "I do something with my hands and great destruction rains down upon the enemies." Red Faction: You swing the hammer at just the right spot, and it brings down an entire building. That was just intoxicating.
The third thing for me—after progress and power—is reward. We've kind of talked about reward plenty. Society engineers us from an early age to believe that success is tied to the acquisition of stuff. I think rewards help justify the time we spend on a game: you spend five hours on a quest, here's a virtual pony with no actual value whatsoever. For a lot of people, the best part of Civilization games are the goodie huts. You just run your little worker over a hut, and maybe you get a technology; maybe you get money; maybe you find another unit. But it's the randomnes—the reward of that. It's very important to me. I know that's a lot of talk, and it's hard to believe that Borderlands could inspire such verbosity. What questions do you have, if any?
Brad Gallaway:My first question would be: Why did they stick that first 12 hours in Borderlands?
Tim Spaeth: I believe they designed that thinking: "Well, we really need to hold the player's hand and give them a tutorial. So we're gonna have a whole quest designed around teaching you how to throw a grenade. " 98 percent of people playing Borderlands know from playing Halo and Call of Duty that if you hit the right bumper, it's gonna throw a grenade; you didn't need a 30 minute quest devoted to that. I think they kind of misread their audience.
Brad Gallaway:It's interesting you say that, because I have a similar feeling about Assassin's Creed II. By my count, I finally got done with all the tutorials at the four hour mark. For me, that was just obscenely too long; the game was just dragging and dragging. Like you said, one whole quest is teaching you how to do one action.
In games like Assassin's Creed and Borderlands, it gets back to my point that a lot of games don't have enough content to support their running times. If they'd reduced those tutorials to just the bare minimum, most players are gonna pick that up pretty quick. People these days are pretty savvy when it comes to games. Like you said, you don't need a half and hour to learn how to throw a grenade; it takes 30 seconds. I think I would've liked both Assassin's Creed II and *Borderlands more if they would've just cut out the fat and jumped straight to what they were gonna do and let you do it.
Borderlands, I played that game for 12 hours and quit. That was just my breaking point—I couldn't take it any more. But to me, that game should have been 12 hours, total. It's kinda simple; if you wanna have replay, go for it, but I didn't see that game supporting that length. I've heard a lot of people say Assassin's Creed takes at least 20 hours to get through, and I in no way agree that it should take that long. I see multiple places where there's a lot of needless fat that can be removed from the formula.
Like you said, the progress, the pacing, feeling like I"m doing something valuable with my time is a lot of what keeps me going in certain games as well. I don't like to waste a lot of time on simple activities that don't really reward me. Doing an entire quest just to learn how to throw a grenade is a complete waste of my time, of the electricity used to run the system and my TV. I think a lot of games these days could really benefit from getting strictly to the point.
Tim Spaeth: It's interesting, because in Borderlands I am on my second playthrough. It's kind of a New Game Plus scenario, where you just bring over your levels, your powers, your weapons but you replay the game again. You do go through that tutorial level again, but you burn through it in about half an hour, whereas it took four or five hours in the initial playthrough. You're so incredibly powerful, and so destructive that for me, it was asctually well worth doing just to dominate that tutorial; I felt like I had beaten it to death and punished it for being so awful.
You're absolutely right, Brad. I do not disagree with anything you're saying. It's just that once you get past that 12 hours, it hits a sweet spot, and oh, it's so sweet. Mike, I think you would love the game.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, I've actually wanted to play it. Steam is having their holiday sale going on and since my 360 isn't working, I thought about getting it for the PC 'cause it was like 33 bucks. But I didn't.
Chi Kong Lui: Do you think this is part of a trend of MMO-izing a lot of games that we're seeing today?
Tim Spaeth: I think so; but sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Final Fantasy XII was MMO-ized, and I hated it.
Mike Bracken: See, I liked Final Fantasy XII.
Tim Spaeth: My problem with that was there were giant areas that took four hours to get through, and then you'd realize you were only halfway through. The paing was completely off there. Part of the problem was I was playing World of Warcraft at the same time, and I was like: "If I'm gonna play an MMO, I'm gonna play a real MMO and not this."
Chi Kong Lui: It just seems like, based on what Brad was saying, Borderlands should have been more of a straight shooter as opposed to MMO-feeling. Or is that off?
Tim Spaeth: You probably could've accomplished a lot of the same goals without the questing system. The questing system is just giving you a reason to go places, but they could've found more organic ways to do it. You could've had dialog trees as opposed to a terminal screen that pops up and says: "Go here and collect five dog crap piles" or something.
Mike Bracken: I was thinking of all the WoW quests that require me to dig through animal feces.
Tim Spaeth: Let's summarize in convenient list format our collective thoughts on what makes for a compelling game experience.
Control over the direction of the story
Investment in the locale, the setting, and your character having real consequences on the game world
Customizable characrter growth
A strong risk-reward ratio
Pick up and play
The need for constant progress, and
Gambling and cannibalism
Chi Kong Lui: We unwittingly explained why games are so often as generic as they are. If they hit all these buttons, that's how we get all these crappy "me too" clones left and right; they're just trying to recreate these experiences over and over again.
Tim Spaeth: That's a good point, Chi. For me, if a game hits two or three of those things, that's probably enough for me to get to the end. It would be a rare game that would have all of those things.
Chi Kong Lui: I think it also speaks to how we need to expand some of what we enjoy. We didn't talk nearly enough about emotional content. Games are not deliviering that.
Tim Spaeth: I also love that we did not at any point mention awesome graphics. [Laughter] Not that I was expecting us to, but I think that's an important point as well. So, what did we miss? And that's the question we pose to you, our listeners. What compels you to drop 50 plus hours on a game? Leave your comments in the podcast post at our website. We'll read the most compelling ones on our next show. Before we get out of here, remember that we're on iTunes and the Zune marketplace. Our Twitter ahndle is @GameCritics. For Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, I'm Tim Spaeth. Stay tuned for your late local news Until next time, good night and bonne chance.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.