We're back! Our first show of 2010 offers looks at Divinity II: Ego Draconis and the Star Trek Online beta. Plus, we answer your letters about adventure games, lazy developers, insta-DLC, and games of the (last) decade. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, and Tim "Not Roy Scheider" Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: This week on the GameCritics.com podcast, we’re cleaning out the mailbag and breaking down Divinity II and Star Trek Online. Boldly going straight into your hearts: the GameCritics.com podcast starts right now.
Welcome, friends, to the 29th edition of the GameCritics.com podcast. I’m Tim Spaeth, back again in 2010. I will say, though, right up front: the year is not going well. First of all—guys, were you like me? Did you think you’d get a lot more mileage out of “Year we make contact” jokes? I grossly underestimated the popularity of that movie; it was a day and a half, and people were kicking me out for Roy Scheider references. Very disappointed about that. And if you tuned in tonight for the latest Roy Scheider news, you will not find it here. You will find, however, three of the finest game critics our world has never known. Say hello to Chi Kong Lui.
Chi Kong Lui: Hey. Belated happy New Year, everybody.
Tim Spaeth: Brad Gallaway.
Brad Gallaway: Hey, how’s it going, everybody?
Tim Spaeth: And, of course, Mike Bracken.
Mike Bracken: Man, is it fucking good to be back.
Tim Spaeth: Oh, I love it. That would be the first vulgarity of the new year.
Mike Bracken: That’s what I was waiting for.
Tim Spaeth: So good to be back with you guys. And a great show this week: we are opening up our leftover mail from 2009. A ton of listener questions. We’re gonna answer as many of them this week as we can. We also have a Quick Hit on Divinity II, and I had a chance to spend some time in the Star Trek Online beta—a dream come true for any young man growing up in America. So, we will get to all of that.
Talking about Divinity II, Mass Effect 2 hits on January 26. It’s the first real blockbuster release of 2010. Sure, we’ve had Beyonetta; we’ve had Darksiders, and along with those, flying way under the radar, has been Divinity II: Ego Draconis, or as I like to pronounce it, Eggo Draconis, which of course is Latin for “dragon waffles.”
Brad Gallaway: I was gonna make that joke, man; you stole it from me. I’m kind of pissed about that.
Tim Spaeth: Really? Oh, I’m sorry, dude.
Brad Gallaway: I had that joke ready, damn it.
Tim Spaeth: I have been waiting to unleash that joke for about three weeks.
Chi Kong Lui: Brad, you missed the obvious joke there: “Leggo my Eggo.” What happened?
Brad Gallaway: That would’ve been taking it too far. I didn’t wanna get cheesy with it; it was just like a quick name check.
Tim Spaeth: Well, Brad, you’re the one who’s been playing a lot of Divinity II. You’ve been Tweeting about it for weeks now. Why don’t you tell us about Divinity II?
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, absolutely. I knew basically nothing about Divinity II before jumping into it, and I’m glad that I walked into it with a clean slate; my expectations were really wide open. If anything, I was ready for it to suck, but it’s actually pretty epic in a lot of ways.
For those who don’t know, Divinity II is kind of an open world-ish third-person action RPG, with the action and combat being in real time. Things start out like a pretty standard Western-style RPG: You make a character, you pick a class. You guys know how it goes.
You start off the game being a dragon slayer, and you’re on a mission to kill the last remaining dragon in this fantasy world. You think you’re up for an epic battle and you think you know how things are gonna go. But as things go in games like this, there’s a lot of twists and turns in the story, and eventually what happens is you, yourself, gain the ability to become a dragon.
So that’s really the game’s big hook. It’s Western RPG plus flying dragon stuff. But before I get into the dragon bits, I do wanna say that I was really, really, really impressed by what Divinity brought to the table. I know that there’s been a demo out on the 360, and a lot of people played the demo and walked away really unimpressed. I can totally understand that. The game itself, technically, is not a jaw-dropper. You look at it and you’re thinking: “Enh. Looks okay; looks kinda like Fable, but maybe not as pretty.” You notice little glitches here and there. It’s not something to show off to your friends when they come over.
But if you can get past the graphics and really get into the meat of what the game offers, it’s great. Unfortunately, the other problem with the demo is it ends before you really get a chance to understand what the game is driving at. It’s one of those situations where I kinda wish they didn’t release the demo. I think a lot of people are gonna miss out on some stuff that’s really, really good because of poor initial impressions.
What this game does well is that it’s a really hard, complex, intricate RPG. It’s more complex than anything I’ve played in quite some time, and it actually may be the most complex. The game’s world is constructed in such a way that the player has to really play the detective more than anything else. You have to talk to a lot of people; you have to listen to what they say; you have to read books. In this case, the books are not just there for flavor. A lot of the books you find in treasure chests and in houses, they actually have really important clues that you apply to a number of the quests.
Speaking of the quests, the quests that they have are great. There’s a ton of variety; the writing in the game is really darkly humorous. There’s a lot of really funny things that pop up. Lots of cool references to other games. The writing is very smart; the voice acting is really done well. If you’re the kind of gamer that likes to get into an RPG and really play the role—if you really like to get your head inside the game and really think about things—Divinity II offers an absurd amount of really, really, really quality content. It’s a little ridiculous.
Right now, I am just about to go an fight the last boss, and I’ve spent about 32-ish hours or so [with the game], and that was me skipping a lot of stuff; that was me not being as complete as I might generally be in a game of this sort. For gamers who really wanna just dig in, this game could easily be maybe 60 hours, maybe even 100 hours if you crave that much. I in general don’t, but it’s there if you want it.
I was really impressed with everything the game did. The leveling system was really interesting. There’s a mind-reading system that just opens up a lot of the the interaction with townsfolk. Rather than having a BioWare kind of dialogue tree, the conversations go only one way pretty much, regardless of what you say. But you alter them by mind-reading. So if you choose to use your mind-reading power—which all dragon slayers have—you forgo the experience points that you would earn, and instead, you learn what their innermost thoughts are. Sometimes it’s nothing; sometimes they’re thinking about their grocery list, sometimes they’re thinking about somebody that they wanna bang.
But a lot of times, you can pick up on these clues. They talk about: “Oh, I hid a key over in this place; I hope the guy doesn’t look there” or “Oh, there’s some gems over in this area—I gotta go pick those up before my friend finds them.” You know, that kind of stuff. So if you really wanna delve into the game, there’s a ton to get into.
I was just really impresed with how adult it all was. I don’t mean that in reference to my previous comment; you’re kind of on your own. There’s lots of places where you have no hand holding you. There’s nobody pointing the way, nobody telling you what to do. It’s up to you to think: “Am I gonna figure this out, or am I not?” And if you’re not, the game doesn’t really stand in your way. But if you do, there’s a lot of really quality loot and a lot of really cool story scenes to see, that are there if you choose to find them. So from that aspect, amazing. Amazing game. I’ve got nothing but positives to say about that.
Tim Spaeth: Okay, okay, okay. Brad: you have just come off Demon’s Souls and Dragon Age: Origins. So you’ve had your fill of fantasy RPGs. Is Divinity II really, significantly different enough from those games that you were willing to devote another 20–30 hours to another fantasy RPG?
Chi Kong Lui: My question was along those lines, in that exactly what’s so unique about it? Or what’s more unique about it, compared to those games?
Brad Gallaway: I actually thought the same thing, because when this showed up, I was like: [exasperatedly] “Oh, my God.” It was just like you said—I went through Demon’s Souls twice; I went through Dragon Age, which is a massive undertaking in itself. I actually had put 40 hours into Final Fantasy XII before this showed up, and I was like: “Oh, my God. Another RPG—do I really wanna do this to myself? Especially with Mass Effect 2 coming at the end of the month” which is my most-anticipated game of this entire year, and yes, I do know it’s January.
I got into it thinking I would just kind of half-assed see what it had to offer. But, man, I got sucked in; I really did. It’s hard to describe in just the limited time we have here on the podcast, but I will say that the complexity of the world, the amount of detail put into the world, and the kind of tasks that you do are so different and so incredibly sophisticated compared to what most RPGs do. It really is different. I would put this as more sophisticated than Dragon Age by a mile. It’s kind of on par with Demon’s Souls in terms of the level that you have to figure out yourself, because Demon’s Souls is absolutely not a hand-holding game. I found that to be very true in Divinity II as well.
Chi Kong Lui: Can you give an example of the sophistication that you’re talking about?
Brad Gallaway: Oh yeah, sure. You can go into any dungeon and clear out whoever’s in there. But there’s often hidden switches that if you just walk in this hallway, you’re not gonna find. But if you’re taking the time to really look around, search your surroundings, you’ll notice that one stone is maybe a little darker than the rest. If that peaks your interest, you can push it. Sometimes it’s nothing; sometimes a whole other wing opens up, and you find all this stuff that you never would’ve found if you weren’t taking the time to really immerse yourself in the environment.
Another aspect: I was trying to find a key to a locked door, and I just was going nuts ’cause I couldn’t find it. Then I just stopped and I said: “Well, if this was my dungeon, where would I put the key? If it’s not on me, then I would say under the welcome mat or something.” So I go back to the door, and I look behind this one box that’s next to the door, and bam! There’s the key. It’s right behind the box.
So it doesn’t take a lot but it goes the extra mile in a lot of ways that a lot of games don’t. Another example is, there’s no shimmering halo around any items. If you’re not taking the time to look inside jars or to search dead bodies and stuff, you’re gonna miss a lot. It’s not just items, but clues, notes, stat-ups…lots of different stuff. If you really wanna explore the environment in the truest sense of the word, there’s nearly endless stuff to see.
Up until this point, I’ve said basically nothing but positives about Divinity II, and the first two-thirds of the game are pretty mind-blowing, if you can get past the graphics and such. But I do wanna say that when the game finally gets to its hook—the dragon ability—it completely just fucking crashes and burns and falls apart. It just takes a crap all over itself, and it’s really painful and embarrassing.
Mike Bracken: Can I jump in? I have one question. It’s really simple: “Better or worse than Draconis on the PS2?”
Brad Gallaway: The game in total, or just the dragon sections?
Mike Bracken: Well, both. Give me both, ’cause I really like that game on the PS2, so I’m curious.
Brad Gallaway: I’m really glad you brought that up, because this game is Draconis taken to the next level. If anybody out there besides us remembers Draconis and liked it, guaranteed you’re gonna fall in love with this game, like, hard. Hardcore. Because this game has everything that was good—everything that was good—about Draconis, just more and better and deeper. I can’t believe that it’s literally not the sequel to Draconis, honestly.
But, about the dragon thing, the thing that I was really disappointed about was…When I read the instruction book for this game, it was interesting because the developer took time to write a note to everybody playing it and said: “Hey, this is a game we poured a lot of heart and soul into,” which is very obvious. “We loved it a lot; we got to the dragon part and we had a lot of challenges. We hope that you like the game.” I think it’s interesting that they said that, because I think that they actually did not meet those challenges the way that they should.
A lot of really, really fucking stupid stuff happens when you have the dragon. All the sudden, there’s these “anti-dragon” no-fly zones all over the place; a lot of the areas that you previously were able to access get covered in this “poisonous smoke” to prevent you from flying down too low, and a lot of really weird stuff happens. When you’re on the ground, there’s enemies. You turn into a dragon, the enemies on the ground vanish and they’re replaced by airborne enemies. When you turn back into a person, the airborne enemies vanish and the land-based enemies come back.
To me, what this says is: “We had a good dragon idea, and we couldn’t get it to work with our super-deep, really complex, third-person RPG. So we just kind of bullshitted our way through it and cobbled it together.” Because that’s really how it feels. It feels like they really, really dropped the ball for what is supposed to be the main hook of the game.
I lost a lot of love for the game when it came to the dragon part, and I almost considered quitting it, honestly, ’cause it got that bad. But I persevered and I’m glad that I did, because it really does kind of pick up at the end. If you a third-person open world RPG, this one has really, really amazing stuff going on. You gotta grit your teeth to get through the dragon parts a little bit, but if you persevere, then it does get better.
If it wasn’t for the dragon part, I would be saying that this is hands-down gonna make it on my top 10 of the year list, because I was so impressed with the first two-thirds. But that last third, man—that was pretty painful. I still would recommend it, though. It’s got a lot of good stuff going for it.
Chi Kong Lui: I think the most obvious question for me is: "What the hell happened to Divinity I? Where was that?
Brad Gallaway: I did a little research; did you guys play it?
Mike Bracken: It was a PC game, wasn’t it?
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, it was PC only. And evidently, it was pretty well-recieved.
Mike Bracken: It was very well-receieved, yeah.
Brad Gallaway: It’s not my bag, but maybe anybody listening in the audience has played it. But from what I can tell, it did really well and it was positive.
Tim Spaeth: And this [sequel] is also available for PC and XBox, right?
Brad Gallaway: PC and 360.
Tim Spaeth: Any other questions or thoughts on Divinity II? Thank you so much, Brad.
Brad Gallaway: No problem. And I just wanna jump in one more time, because I really don’t wanna sell this game short. If anybody was put off by my bit about the dragon, it’s totally okay to be put off by that, but don’t miss out on everything else the game does right. Because it really is an amazing RPG.
Tim Spaeth: And that’s why we love you, Brad, because nobody else is talking about this game, and like I said, it is way under the radar. People need soemthing to do before Mass Effect 2 comes out.
I had a chance to spend some time in the open beta for Star Trek Online. Hold on, guys—it’s exciting. This is an MMO; it’s coming out February 2. This is a beta, so obviously everything I say here is subject to change. Although honestly, Februrary 2 isn’t that far away, so it can’t change that much. So that I know how nerdy I can get here: Are any of you guys Star Trek fans at all?
Mike Bracken: The original show, I like. Fuck Picard, man—Jesus Christ!
Chi Kong Lui: I was gonna say, I’m a TNG guy, so fuck you.
Mike Bracken: Biggest wuss in the galaxy, Picard. It’s all about Kirk.
Tim Spaeth: I’m a Shatner man, myself.
Brad Gallaway: I love all of Star Trek. I’m not crazy about it, but I watch it. I’ve seen most everything, and I enjoy it. I don’t own any shirts with the little star fleet logo on them or anything and I don’t wear the Spock ears, but I like it. I’m a fan.
Tim Spaeth: Do you know Scotty’s portion of the Enterprise self-destruct sequence? Do you know his code?
Brad Gallaway: That would be “no.”
Tim Spaeth: It’s 1, 1A, 2B. And that right there tells you how much of a Star Trek fan I am. I’m a big fan.
Chi Kong Lui: Quick thoughts on the J.J Abrams movie?
Tim Spaeth: Loved the J.J. Abrams movie. Thought it was an astounding balance of fan service to all the old-school fans, but you didn’t have to know or understand or acknowledge that any of that was in there to really enjoy the new film.
Mike Bracken: It was one of my favorite movies of the summer, actually.
Tim Spaeth: Just an incredible balancing act, and astoundingly entertaining, and really surprised me. Like I said, I’m a Shatner man.
Mike Bracken: They needed Shatner in it, though.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah, I don’t know. You have the continuity—
Brad Gallaway: With the shape he’s in today, I would’ve been embarrassed, man.
Mike Bracken: I’m saying that if they got Nimoy to come back for it, then they should give fucking Shatner a cameo.
Brad Gallaway: Nimoy, he looks okay. He’s old, but you can still recognize him.
Mike Bracken: Everybody knows who Shatner is still. We see him on the fucking Priceline commercials. He’s the man.
Brad Gallaway: He’d have to get rid of three chins before we’d be able to—
Chi Kong Lui: Nimoy can still do Spock; Shatner can’t do Kirk anymore.
Tim Spaeth: But if they could de-age Patrick Stewart in the X-Men movies, they could de-age and digitally compress William Shatner to play Kirk again. Anyway, we’re digressing; we are not a Star Trek nerd show, although I am a Star Trek nerd.
What you have to understand about us Star Trek fans—and the reason it makes so much sense to attach a Star Trek license to an MMO—is that we have all fantasized about living in the universe: wearing the uniform, commanding a starship, making love to beautiful alien women.
So an Star Trek MMO is very appealing to me, if it gets the details right. The failing of most Star Trek games for the last 30 years is that they generally get the details wrong. They play fast and loose with the canon, and it breaks the illusion for us.
So as for this game, I’ve only had a couple hours to put into it—enough to get through the tutorial and earn my own command—and I think in terms of the world-building, they’re on the right track. It really does look and feel and sound like Star Trek. As for the actual game….enh. That’s another story, and we will get there.
The game begins with the creation of your character. What you need to know is the developers here are Cryptic Studios. They made City of Heroes and, more recently, Champions Online. Those games have the best character creation tools in the genre. They are second to none, and Star Trek is right up there. The tools are just as good. You can choose from ten different alien races; you can create your own; you can pop different forehead appliances on your guy, give him antennae. You can adjust everything about your body; you can design your own star fleet uniform.
Chi Kong Lui: You can invent an entire race?
Tim Spaeth: You can invent an entire race. And apparently, other people can then adopt your race, and if your race gets enough members—like, if you could have an entire guild of just your race—then you might get a homeworld, and they might put missions on your world and people can go to visit it. At least, that’s all in the marketing materials. None of that is in the beta.
Chi Kong Lui: I can see that being horriby abused though, don’t you?
Tim Spaeth: Oh, of course. Well, certainly, you can abuse the character creation tools to create an alien race that looks like genitalia. Not that I tried it myaelf, but I saw this in the game, so I would imagine that that will happen, and I don’t know if Cryptic is going to police that or not. What this all brought back to me was, I thought back to my 12-year-old self, sitting in class with notebook paper, drawing my own starships and drawing my own starfleet uniforms. It really brought that sense of nostalgia back for me. I think that part of the game, they’ve really nailed.
Once you create your character, the game itself…It drops you in the middle of a Borg attack on your starship—the Borg being the cyborg people that fly around in the cubes. That was disappointing to me; the Borg are totally played out. Every Star Trek game for the past 10 years has used a Borg attack as its tutorial, so to see it again here was a bit disappointing.
The game is two games in one. It’s really two separate MMOs. There’s a ground game where you run around with your person, and then there’s a space game where you control your ship. The ground portion is really weak. It’s really weak. It is essentially like every MMO: you talk to guys, you get quests, you turn the quests in. All the quests are variations on: “Go shoot a Borg.” “Go collect this.” “Go free four hostages, and then come back and get your quest reward.” There’s no innovation here. Frankly, it’s kind of a step back—and I realize it’s just a beta—but it’s very sluggish, it’s very choppy. The interface is cluttered; it’s kind of ugly. It could just be all the hours I’ve spent playing World of Warcraft, but I really miss that Blizzard polish, and it’s really needed here badly.
One more thing on the ground game is that the bridge, all of the interiors are built four times too big. So, for example, the turbo lift doors are actually three stories high, and it looks just ridiculous. It’s completely un-immersive. Like I said, it just feels very clunky and unfinished and rushed.
The space game, on the other hand, is actually a lot more interesting. It plays like the old Starfleet CommandPC games; I’m going to assume that none of you have played those, but anyone listening who has…Honestly, it looks like it was done by a completely different development team. Clearly, Cryptic spend much more time on it than they did the ground game. It’s much smoother; there’s much more to do. And I have to say, the grand finale of the tutorial is you team up with ten other ships and you take on a Borg cube, and it was exciting. It looked and sounded like those events did in the television series and the films. They did a really nice job there. The problem is, you spend much more time in the ground game than you do in space.
Brad Gallaway: I got a couple questions for you, if you don’t mind. Number one, without knowing much about this particular game, is there gonna be any of the iconic characters? Will you be able to bump into Captain Picard or Captain Kirk or something like that, any recognizable people from the show? Secondly, are you gonna be able to have your own ship? Does everybody who plays the game effectively act as a starfleet captain, or can you be Mr. Engine Room Shmo? What are the roles like?
Tim Spaeth: To answer your first question, the game takes place 40 years in the future, so most of those characters are dead or at least long retired. The idea was to separate themselves from the continuity, so that they would have the freedom to do whatever they want with the plot.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, because the nerds will cry about canon anyway.
Brad Gallaway: Right.
Tim Spaeth: You joke about that, but that’s a huge reason why so many Star Trek games fail. It really is.
Mike Bracken: I’m sure.
Tim Spaeth: To answer your second question, yes. Everyone becomes the captain of their own starship, and that’s how the tutorial ends: You become your own captain and you get to name your starship, and it’s very moving and emotional.
Mike Bracken: You can name it anything you want?
Tim Spaeth: Anything you want.
Mike Bracken: So there’s gonna be some really awful ship names, like SephirothXXXCloudStrifeTifa all on one ship?
Tim Spaeth: Absolutely. My favorite starship name that I saw was the USS Richer’s Beard, which I thought was very creative.
But you can specialize in different things, so you could be an engineering ship; you could be science ship or you could be a warship. In those respects, you kind of have the divisions of duties. What it comes down to is, it is falling back on the standard MMO trope of a Tank, a Healer, and DPS. So there are defensive ships, there are support ships, and there are attack ships. In that respect, it’s a little disappointing that they didn’t come up with a new mechanic underlying everything, but that’s how they’re handling it.
Chi Kong Lui: So, is it gonna be like Star Wars Galaxies to you, then? It’s not really taking advantage of the Star Trek universe?
Tim Spaeth: It’s too early to say. I think the problem with Star Wars Galaxies is that it didn’t even try, whereas this game tries. You do see a lot of iconic Star Trek imagery; you do get to live out the fantasy of being a captain. I haven’t done anything as a captain yet, so I don’t know what that’s going to be like yet. But it’s definitely above what they did with the Star Wars license in Galaxies.
Brad Gallaway: Hey, Tim, are they gonna have that 3D chess game that you always saw in The Next Generation? Is that a little minigame you can do?
Tim Spaeth: You can walk around your ship, and in my understanding, there is a recreation deck. So I’m hoping, if they’re being faithful to the original series, that they will have the 3D chess, but that also they will have shirtless fencing.
If you remember that episode “Naked Time,” Sulu had shirtless fencing. But in episode 9, “Charlie X,” Captain Kirk had shirtless wrestling. As long as I can take my shirt off in the game, I think that will be immersive enough for me.
Brad Gallaway: Well, speaking of that kind of stuff, what about the Holo-deck? That’s everybody’s number one thing: “Oh, we do all sorts of crazy stuff in the Holo-deck!” Is there a Holo-deck on your ship? Can you buy one? Can you upgrade one? And if so, is there a little text parser saying: “Enter what you want to see”? That would get me to sign up.
Tim Spaeth: You know, that sounds great, and I will have to look into it. Certainly, because it’s 40 years in the future, I would expect very advanced Holo-deck technology. Obviously, I’m gonna use it for lovemaking, but—
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. What we’re talking about here is porn, of course. That’s the only reason anybody wants the Holo-deck, so…
Tim Spaeth: Of course. And as I’ve said many times, as soon as our civilization invents a holo-deck, civilization ends right there. That’s it. We’re done.
Certainly, I’m not expecting any of you to try this game. I’m not even sure I’m gonna buy it right away; maybe down the road, if the price drops. Like I said, the potential is there. It did not turn me off entirely, as most Star Trek games do, so I give it points for that. When we return, we’ll read your cards and letters.
Time now for reader mail. Let’s get right to it. We’ve been letting it build up for quite a while. Here is letter number one. It comes from Shankster. Shankster writes:
“How do you feel about unfinished levels being completed after a game’s release, then sold as DLC? Do you feel ripped off at paying extra for content that should’ve been included in the first place?”
Mike Bracken: I am not a fan of this. I don’t like downloadable content that I have to pay for, unless it’s something that comes along significantly after the game is done and I feel like I got my core $60 experience. The best example of this is Capcom’s Resident Evil 5, where they added all these modes a week after the game came out and you had to pay for them. That’s bullshit. I don’t want that. But if you do an add-on like Fallout 3, where they’ve added more scenarios after the game has been out for a while or they hold them for a couple months, and I feel like even if I don’t buy those I still got a full experience out of Fallout 3 as it is, that’s okay. It’s really that fine line, though; when it feels like they’re nickel and diming you to death, and you paid $60 for a sort-of-finished game, it really pisses me off. But if I finish the main game and feel like this was worth the $60, I got the full experience, and then there’s bonus things I can do or not do if I choose down the line, then I’m okay with it.
Brad Gallaway: I would go along with basically what you said. I hate to ditto you, but it is a fine line, and I think a lot of it has to do with how soon it comes out afterwards. Games that launch with DLC available are fucking bullshit to me. It totally pisses me off, because you automatically feel like you’re missing out on something if you bought the game.
It was kind of like Dragon Age. When Dragon Age launched, granted, everybody who bought the game new got one of the DLCs for free, which is fine. But there was another one that was right alongside of it. Nowhere in the game do you have an item box to store your stuff, so if you wanted an item box, you had to buy this extra mission. Granted, it was a good mission—I’m not naysaying the mission itself. But just the concept that there is stuff ready on day one feels really dirty and cheap.
I don’t like to feed into it, but at the same time, the obsessive-compulsive side of me is like: “Oh, my God! I’m not getting the full experience! I’m missing out on something!” If it’s just a couple multiplayer maps, I can let those go. But if it’s anything story-based, or, God forbid, a new character, it messes with my head a little bit. So I kind of resent it. But then again, like Mike said, if it’s a month or two after the game’s been out or even longer, and people have completely beat the game and then something new gives you a reason to get your disc back out, that’s kinda cool. It makes you feel like you were smart in the head to keep the disc around. Sometimes it’s like revisiting an old friend, so I appreciate that.
When you’re playing Assassin’s Creed II, two of the missions are blatantly gone. You jump from level 11 to level 14. It was like: “What the fuck? Where did 12 and 13 go?” And then, of course, a couple days after the game launches: “Oh! Announced DLC! Two new missions!” Well, if you’re gonna take that stuff out and hide it, at least hide it. That to me was totally insulting. That was like: “We’re gonna make you our bitch, you’re gonna give us an extra 10 bucks, and you’re gonna like it.”
Tim Spaeth: This letter was written explicitly about Assassin’s Creed II. I left that out. The flipside of that is, levels have gone unfinished in games forever. It’s only now that we have a venue by which we can play those levels—by which those levels can come out, and we can enjoy extra content. That would be the flipside of it, and I would say: If it’s not worth the money, just don’t buy it. But at least now, we have the option to see extra stuff from games we love.
Chi Kong Lui: That’s why it’s ultimately a perception thing. If it feels like an extra level, great. But if it feels as if they intentionally lopped off two stages, then that just feels like a big rip-off. And I don’t buy that whole apologist argument that says we don’t have a right to content. Who cares?
Brad Gallaway: My argument to what you said, Tim, is if the level was poor enough to cut in the first place, then the game should’ve been crafted to be a complete experience and wrapped up and polished and what gets to be on the final disc should be really good. But in the case especially of Assassin’s Creed II—which I felt was really just ham-fisted—if those were poor enough to cut and you’re gonna polish those up and those are gonna be at least as good if not better, then…It doesn’t sit right with me, and I can hear people saying: “If you don’t want it, don’t buy it,” which is cool and I’m fine with that. But at the same time, could you not have changed the order of the levels in Assassin’s Creed II? Re-number them properly, so I didn’t feel like somebody blatantly was ripping me off?
Tim Spaeth: Or that the game was bugged. For some reason, you’re skipping content and you did something wrong. I guess in fairness to the folks at UbiSoft, they did flat out come out and say: “We ran out of time. We couldn’t get those levels done and make our release date.” Whether you believe them or not is up to you. I don’t know if it was an issue of quality for them, but rather they had a hard November release date that they had to make and they were able to finish the ending of the game, but missed those two.
Chi Kong Lui: If that’s the case, here’s two alternatives. If it was supposed to be in there anyway, a) they should just give it to you free as a goodwill thing. That just sounds wrong; you’re buying and incomplete game, and they’re charging you extra for something you should’ve completed. That doesn’t make sense to me. The other alternative is, if they lower the price of the game. Let’s be honest: a large part of the reason we’re seeing DLCs is because they’re trying to undermine the used game market. They’re trying to get people to not resell their games and hold on to them. Why not just lower the retail price a tad and say: “Okay. It’s not complete, but we’ll charge you an incomplete price, and if you wanna by the extra levels, then pay the additional fee for it.” It’s sort of a win-win for them, because players aren’t reselling the games and thereby giving developers a lower cut of the revenue.
Tim Spaeth: That’s an ideal world I wish I could live in. [Laughter] I think Assassin’s Creed II is going to come up a couple times in the course of these letters, so let’s put that one to bed and go on to letter number two. This one comes from joetbd, and he writes:
"Does it ever feel like developers get stubborn and refuse to change things that people don’t like about their games? For example, the long drive to the mission in GTA games that you have to repeat every time you get killed? Or putting a save point before a long, unskippable cut-scene, followed by a hard boss battle? There should be an industry-standard document listing all the annoying gameplay decisions that no one wants to see in any future game.
Brad Gallaway: Amen.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah. I think this problem stems from…it’s sort of like the Capcom mentality, where they think the annoying parts of their games are inherent to what made them a success. Like how in Resident Evil, the characters were supposed to move slow and spin around like a tank, and that was somehow what people actually liked about the game. These games are successful in their own relative ways. I’m not sure I would call it a stubborness, but developers think it’s part of their success so they don’t wanna let that go. It’s always tricky finding that balance between evolving certain things and leaving enough things alone so that the integrity’s intact.
But, yeah. It does feel like sometimes developers are just way too stubborn and they should let certain things go and try to evolve it. Then again, I’m very forgiving. I like when developers do that. Unfortunately, many gamers out there would prefer more or less the same Madden every year with a few tweaks; I’m not that guy.
Brad Gallaway: It’s funny you mention Capcom, Chi, because when I read this question initially, for some reason my brain wanted me to say Capcom, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. It just felt like a Capcom kind of thing.
I think it’s funny that we’re on the same level about that, but I definitely agree. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to just go, especially in the current generation. People might have said that there were technical reasons, like: “We couldn’t put that save before the boss, because blah, blah, blah” or “We need to make you drive that distance in GTA because such-and-such.” But the power that we’re talking about here with the 360 and the PS3, there is really no reason whatsoever that any of these things should be persisting. As far as I’m concerned, a lot of this stuff is sheer laziness on the part of developers.
Chi Kong Lui: “Laziness,” right. I was gonna say.
Brad Gallaway: It’s just lazy. You make a game. Maybe you screw it up the first time, but when you get the feedback from players the second time, you owe it to them to make that game better if there are genuinely things that need to be fixed, such as no save point before a boss. I’m still playing games these days where there’s no save point before a fucking boss. It’s like: “Have you not beene paying attention to the industry for the last 20 years?” People hate that. Nobody likes that. Not a single player that I’ve ever talked to genuinely would say: “You know, I like fighting six bosses in a row with no save point, and if I die, doing them all over? That’s great!”
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Brad Gallaway: Nobody fucking says that. So any developer that partakes of these bad habits totally loses cred with me. They’re just lazy. I knw a lot of developers; they’re good people. There may be financial reasons, there may be time reasons why they don’t do these things. But the bottom line is, they need to be done. There’s really, really no excuse why they shouldn’t be done.
Mike Bracken: I was gonna jump in there. With the boss thing, it’s something that totally happens all the fucking time in RPGs. I was just playing Dragon Quest VIII, and you fucking go up and you fight a boss. There is a save point before you fight him. But of course it’s one of those multi-stage bosses where you fight his first form and you win, and then you have to fight a second form without being able to save or heal or anything.
The funny thing about Dragon Quest VIII is you’re cruising along; you don’t even have to fucking grind before this point. And then all the sudden, you get to this boss whose first form is kind of easy and then the second form smacks the shit out of you if you’re not in the 31 range. The nice thing there is if you lose, you can resurrect back in town and you can go level-grind and you can go back and you don’t have to fight the first boss again.
But I’ve played 100 RPGs where you have the same problem. I understand that in the Final Fantasy era on the Nintendo; I don’t see why we’re still having it now. RPGs in general have these things. Why does every RPG follow the same town-dungeon-town template? Why does that never deviate? It’s because these guys are stubborn and that’s how it’s always been and they stick with it for some reason. It drives me absolutely batshit insane.
Chi Kong Lui: It’s easier to do the same thing over and over again rather than fix it, I guess.
Brad Gallaway: Just as an example that we’re talking about tonight: Divinity II is very complex, very large, very deep. It’s a big, open world and yet, in this game, I can save anywhere at any time—no matter where I am or what I’m doing. I can save in the middle of a boss battle; I can save in the middle of healing; I can save up on a mountain; I can save in my village. Anytime, anywhere, and that to me is awesome. Every single game in the world, as far as I’m concerned, needs to let you save anywhere that you want to. There’s just no excuse.
And stuff like that—let me skip the cut-scenes, let me skip the drive that I’ve driven ten times. It’s done. It needs to be done.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah, the concept of the save point. The whole game should be a save point: I can save anywhere. Joe mentioned unskippable cut-scenes. That’s never bothered me.
Mike Bracken: That drives me nuts.
Brad Gallaway: Hate it. Hate it.
Tim Spaeth: It’s never bothered me because I like cut-scenes. I like story and I like watching the cut-scene once. Now, if I have to watch it over and over…I’ll come back to Assassin’s Creed II, and this is the part where I whine about losing my save. I played 13 hours of Assassin’s Creed II and it ate my game save. I had to start over, and you can’t skip the cut-scenes. Well, now I get it. Every blasted cut-scene, you need to be able to press Start and get through it. I am completely on board with that.
Brad Gallaway: Agreed.
Tim Spaeth: Gosh, we’re angry people, aren’t we? But rightfully so. We are in the right here.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Our scorn and wrath knows no fucking bounds. I have contempt for everything tonight.
Tim Spaeth: Everything, everyone. The third question in our list: this comes from Li-Ion. Li-Ion asks:
There are some multi-platform titles which differ quite a lot from platform to platform. Recent examples are the RPGs Dragon Age and Risen. I saw a couple of review sites which gave the PC versions of these games higher scores than the console versions. I also notice a lot of discussion in the respective message boards of how the game on platform A is so much better on platform B. So, how much do you think the differences have to be to justify separate reviews for each platform?
Chi Kong Lui: I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule to it. I think if the code is inherently meant to be the same game but it’s not quite executed properly, that’s another story. But if there’s fundamental differences—like the whole combat system is different or there’s different features—I think that definitely warrants a separate review.
Brad Gallaway: I totally agree with that. I think Dragon Age is a perfect example. The combat systems between 360 and PC are totally different. In that case, it absolutely did warrant a different review. Like Chi said, if it’s the same game but it’s prettier on PC or it runs a little smoother on the 360, minor stuff like that I don’t think warrants a separate review.
But in the case of PC especially, sometimes you can get a lot of extra content that gets added in; you can have certain mods that really affect the way a game plays; you can have new patches that are more extensive than what you can get on 360. In my mind, if anything changes the way the game is played or the actual content of the game, then that’s a different review.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. If the game design is different. I agree.
Brad Gallaway: It’s gotta be more than just graphics, though, to me.
Tim Spaeth: I would imagine, in a practical sense, it would also be dependent on: Do you have somebody with the time to review both versions, or do you have two critics who can each have access to separate versions?
Chi Kong Lui: Right. That’s the official GameCritics line. [Laughter]
Brad Gallaway: One thing I did wanna add for people who are concerned about those sort of things, is please make sure that you look at the disclaimers that come at the end of all the reviews. We will specifically tell you which version we played, and so that may actually effect the value you get from our reviews. Somebody wanting to play the PC version of Dragon Age wouldn’t get very much use out of our 360 version review, which is why we specifically lay it out there. Make sure you check the disclaimer.
Tim Spaeth: Very good. Li-Ion asked another question—this one much shorter, but I think it’s a good one. He writes:
Is there hope for the adventure genre?
Aren’t we in an adventure genre renaissance with the return of the Monkey Island games? With Phoenix Wright games, which aren’t really a tradition adventure game, but I think are kind of the heir apparent. Machinarium, which I started at Richard Niak’s insistence, is fantastic—an absolutely wonderful evolution of that genre, but still a very pure 2D adventure game. I think that genre was dead for quite a while, but it’s coming back, isn’t it?
Brad Gallaway: I think there’s kind of a resurgence of those games, but one thing that all those games have in common is that they’re very small-scale. With the example of Machinarium, that’s pretty much an indie game. Hopefully, it’ll come to some of the consoles as a download; I would very much like to play it.
But I think in the traditional, classic, capital A adventure game, we may see little games here and there, but, on the whole, that kind of style is done. I have a suspicion that people who are newer gamers, or who did not grow up playing Police Quest or Leisure Suit Larry or King’s Quest or any of those have to be more motivated than the average player to really get into them.
For me, the adventure game has evolved into a different form. By that I mean games which are heavily story-based and they incorporate things like quick time events or other cinema-type actions to take the place where you would normally expect to see action in an action game. But adventure games don’t really have a lot of fast reflex kind of stuff. In lieu of actually having a fighting engine or having a shooting engine, we have QTEs and things like that. For me, I would think of Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, the Shenmue series, to a certain extent, also Dreamfall.
Those type of games take place in a 3D world, but those games are mostly about exploration and doing tasks. When it comes down to actually having action—with the exception being Shenmue, of course—you’re doing QTE, you see your character doing something cool, you’re still in control but they’re making the player go through these actions in a differet way. To me, this new drama-heavy, QTE-heavy style is what the adventure genre has evolved into. Honestly, I think that is an easier sell to players than going back to the old hunt-and-peck 2D status that previous adventure games have.
Chi Kong Lui: But even in the later iterations of those adventure games, they were pretty damn accessible. When Sierra went back and re-did Police Quest and VGA and Space Quest, you didn’t really have to hunt and peck that much. They made a lot of great adjustments. I don’t think it’s so much that the format is irrelevant; I think it’s just that the developers who are doing it are these really small, independent developers that you don’t really hear about anymore.
Back then, Sierra were PC games. They dominated, and they were the ones putting out all the high-profile quest games. If you had a Rockstar or an Activision put out a quest game, I think it would still be well-received to a certain extent, with the right adjustments, obviously. Not like the classic Zak McKracken you have to type in your input kind of thing.
Brad Gallaway: But what about the thing where you have to search every screen for your cursor to react to something? That’s how those games were played back then.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah, but even like I said, the later Gabriel Knight, Police Quest, you chould just tab and it would actually go through the hotspots for you. They were quite easy, if you ask me. Those games were pretty damn easy. I’d get through them in a couple of days, whereas the old really classic quest games would take me weeks.
Brad Gallaway: If those still have a life, how come nobody’s really making them? Indie people, of course, but you can find anything in the indie scene: that’s not a really good indicator. Nobody is making any games like that in the larger sphere.
Tim Spaeth: The people who knew how to make those games are all either retired or moved on to other things. I don’t think there’s anyone left who knows how to make a great adventure game. Even Tim Schafer, who you would call a master of the adventure genre, has all but abandoned that concept.
Chi Kong Lui: I think that’s a very valid point, Brad, and I don’t have an answer to that. I certainly recall back in the day, one of the better Star Trek games was a quest-style game. And Indiana Jones, that was a classic, and The Fate of Atlantis was another classic right there. I think those kind of high-profile games would certainly bolster the genre back to prominence. But why even guys like Tim Schafer have abandoned it, I don’t know. That’s a good question. You’d have to ask him.
Brad Gallaway: I think that the core of the genre has potential. I’ve played those games; I enjoy those games. But I think, honestly, in today’s environment, they need to be 3D, they need to be more engaging, they need to be more visually appealing. I think the play style has to be a little bit different. It’s just a natural evolution.
Chi Kong Lui: I think they are all those things. But the one thing that these adventure games rarely are is exciting in that kind of shoot-the-guy-in-the-face, explosions kind of way.
Brad Gallaway: [Unknown] was not exciting, man. Nobody wants to buy a game that’s not exciting.
Chi Kong Lui: But we all enjoyed those games. They were exciting in their own way, but they were definitely more mental. Come on, let’s face it—Myst is one of the greatest-selling games of all time. There’s certainly an appeal there for even the casual folks. But, yeah. There’s just hasn’t been a Myst in a long time.
Tim Spaeth: I will forever damn full-motion video for killing Sierra On-Line. Oh, my God. Ugh! Because Myst and Seventh Guest and…Sierra poured so many millions of dollars into creating a full-motion video franchise and Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight 2 just sent them on the beginning of their downward spiral.
I miss the genre. Although I will say, I paid for the Space Quest and King’s Quest packs on Steam—they were $5 a piece—and I went back to play them. I’ll be honest; I love those games, but I could not spend more than five minutes or so on them. I don’t know: I want them to come back, but do I really want them to come back. Let’s not forget—maybe that genre has morphed into games like Grey’s Anatomy: The Game.
Chi Kong Lui: Oh, don’t insult the genre. Why didn’t it work for you, though, Tim, if you can just be brief about that?
Tim Spaeth: Honestly, I’ve played those games and replayed them so many times that I bought them more as just a security blanket.
Chi Kong Lui: It’s not really a fair evaluation. We need to get a fresh game. But there have been some new games, although I haven’t played them.
Tim Spaeth: I would recommend Machinarium. I think it’s an outstanding example of the genre, and very cheap on Steam. Go get it. Let’s move on. Next question: this comes from Hargrada. He writes:
How much do your expectations—such as hype, previous chapters in a series, setting, plot, etc.—play into your reviews? Should a game be penalized for not doing things you think it should, regardless of the developer’s intent?
Mike Bracken: Expectations certainly play a part in it. You try to be as unbiased as you can be and take every game on its own terms, but nobody is truly unbiased. You’re coming into games with pre-conceived notions, even when it’s a brand new game of a new franchise. When you’re playing a sequel, it’s even more so because you have previous experience with it. You bring those in, and they certainly factor into how you feel about the experience and the game as you go along.
But at the same time, when it comes time to write the actual review, I let most of that shit go and try to take the game on its own merit. I’ve played a lot of games that are part of a series and done a lot of reviews. I think we all have, because that’s what most of the gaming industry is at this point, is sequels. It’s always there, but you try not to let it affect you when it comes to assigning a score and actually doing the writing. That’s at least how I look at it.
Brad Gallaway: That’s a good way to put it, Mike. I think that you are correct in saying that nobody is totally unbiased. If somebody brings up the “bias” word, that to me says they don’t even know what they’re talking about. Nothing in life is completely unbiased; it’s just not a reality. But, like you said, I think what we can really do is try to put aside things that we feel may color our view, and really take the game on its own terms.
However, I will say that, the way that I see expectations—and it’s kind of a loaded queston from the get-go—the way that I look at that is: If I know what a game is about…Let’s say a fighting game. If I get into a fighting game, it seems to me like there should be certain things that are logical to expect. I should be able to hit people; I should be able to have a couple different moves; I should be able to refill my life somehow.
There’s just these basic expectations that you think that a game should go through. If it’s something that’s really outside the box…if I’m playing a Medieval knights and dragons game and there’s no rocket-laucher, it would be really bad form for me to say: “There’s no rocket-launcher!” because that’s illogical to expect. But at the same time, I think you should be able to expect a horse; you should be able to expect dragons that look cool, shields. It’s just about: “What is a logical thing that this game should offer?” without really trying to redesign it in your own head.
Like I said, it’s kind of a slippery slope, because if you go too far down that path, then you start thinking: “Well, it should’ve had this, and it should’ve had this, and it should’ve had this,” which may or may not be accurate. I think most of us as critics, we’ve been doing this long enough that we really know where to draw those lines.
It’s almost like an art form. I’d like to think that I have a pretty good grasp on what’s a reasonable thing to expect, and what’s an unreasonable thing to expect. But that’s not something that I can really quantify for anybody, and I would imagine that everybody has their own level of where that occurs. But I try to do my best; I’m sure that the rest of us do as well.
Chi Kong Lui: My take is, everyone has expectations. You can’t avoid it. We try to be honest about it, first and foremost. Secondly, as Brad was saying, you have to be rational in those expectations. Otherwise, you just lose all credibility. If you’re expecting something that’s just completely crazy, then that’s not fair.
But it definitely factors in. My own personal example of that is a little Game Boy Advance game called Car Battler Joe. That was a game that I just picked off the shelf, had no expectations whatsoever. Yeah, I have to admit I felt like I hit a jackpot, where it was completely out of the blue. That factored into a very positive experience.
Then I can think of another famous example on our own website: Dan Weissenberger’s Halo 3 review. It revolved around his expectations around how Microsoft sold this game as this epic war battle between two races, and ultimately, it wasn’t that. It was you going into a stage fighting ten aliens at a time. I thought that was fair. A lot of people didn’t think that was fair.
Brad Gallaway: That’s very true. I think that the way a developer or advertiser pushes a game prior to release has a lot to play in what we expect. For example, Fable was one of the most hyped games before it came out. Of course, whenever Peter Molyneux says anything, you gotta completely disregard at least 50 percent of what he says; he’s totally Mr. Hype.
But at the same time, they said things that led us gamers to expect much more than what we got. Fable was okay, but it was just this straightforward action game with a few minor twists here and there. It wasn’t the genre-redefining, world-altering thing [we were promised.]
In a case where somebody hypes a game a lot, only if it’s the developer or the publisher, and they’re telling us it’s gonna be the Second Coming, then I think it’s pretty justifiable to have high expectations. If we are fed a bunch of lines and then the game doesn’t deliver, then I think, as critics, we have every right to take them to task for something like that.
Chi Kong Lui: I think judging a game on its own terms is an ideal, and it’s something we should strive for. But the reality is, that’s not quite possible, really. It’s somewhat of a fallacy.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah. How do you tell somebody what they have a right to expect? That’s an intensely personal thing for everybody, so we can just do the best we can, and if that’s not good enough for somebody, then there’s a billion other review sites on the Web.
Tim Spaeth: Well said. Let’s move on. The second to last question. This question’s interesting. It is specifically for you, Brad.
Brad Gallaway: Uh-oh.
Tim Spaeth: This is the question: “Brad, where do you live? I’d like to come visit you.”
I’m joking, of course. This is actually for you, but it comes from Coils3, and he writes:
“Brad, define souls in video games.”
Now, this is in reference to your review of InFamous. Brad Gallaway wrote:
“Spiritual deficiency may seem like an odd criticism for someone to level against a video game, but after putting inFamous through its paces and adventuring with protagonist Cole McGrath in Empire City, it was really the only conclusion I could come to. The nuts and bolts are all there and the necessary elements seem to be in place, yet at no point did I ever feel immersed or convinced…I could mentally understand what was supposed to be happening, yet never felt it for a moment.”
I guess what Coils3 is asking is: “What does it mean for a game to”have" a soul, or “lack” a soul?
Brad Gallaway: Just like in real life, this is one of those things you have to take on faith a little bit. In reference to that specific review, I did take a little bit of heat after it went live. With InFamous, everything was there. There was this wide-open world; a variety of powers; the graphics were really good; it was from a studio that I had a lot of respect for.
On paper, this should’ve been a total home run. But when I actually got my hands on it, it felt really contrived. It felt really mechanical in the way it was put together. It was almost as if the developers picked and chose from the different high points of other games in a similar genre, and cobbled them together in this Frankenstein creation.It was almost designed by committee, where I didn’t really feel as though there was one defining vision going on. I didn’t feel like there was a message, or any spark there. And how do you define “spark”? I don’t know. That’s different for everybody.
But in this case, I just felt like it was a product. I felt like it was calculated to hit all of the important bullet-points, and if that was done, then it would be a big seller and would get really good review scores and it would be a big hit, and so forth and so on. But it didn’t feel to me as though there was one dude somewhere saying: “I have this vision of this game I’d like to call InFamous, and I wanna make this happen. This is my dream.” I didn’t get that at any point. It felt really empty to me.
In contrast to that, there are a lot of games where they maybe have some problems—they have some issues with the technical side, or a few bad calls here or there—but underneath it, you can tell that the people who made the game really cared. Little touches that they add in; little animations that are totally unnecessary, but they’re there because obviously somebody took the time to make it because they cared. Little jokes that you find sometimes, or just the whole approach.
A recent example of a game that I felt had a really, really clear and noticeable soul was Bionic Commando, which was one of my favorite games of last year. I know it took a lot of flak in the press, but when you look at everything that they did, and especially the endgame…If anybody gets to the end of Bionic Commando, you cannot tell me that that was crafted to please the masses, or that was designed by committee. That was a totally crazy, unpredictable, bold end to that game.
I don’t wanna spoil it for anybody, but that game did not go in any way, shape or form the way that most reviewers thought it would go. Because of that, they trashed it. But to me, that was somebody saying: “This is my vision; this is the feeling that I have for this game, and I’m gonna do this, regardless of whether people like it or not.” I totally respected it. I thought it worked. I thought it was bold.
That was a game that had a number of short falls, but in total, I could really feel that the development team loved this game. There was just so much to notice, so much to pick up on, and so much that was there, that I felt like: “Man, this game, I can forgive all its problems and love it, because I can see what they’re going for.”
Mike Bracken: I would just add that, for me, it’s when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a game, which is a vague and amorphous statement that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to people. But you know it when you see it. A game has a soul when you feel like it’s not just components put into place and fit together, but the whole thing coalesces into a greater experience. I don’t know—it’s a very philosophical question for this show.
Chi Kong Lui: For some reason, I go back to Bruce Lee. He’s a guy that feels fresh; he feels original, despite the fact that he’s doing martial arts which other people were doing at the same time also. But he had a completely unique take on it. He brought a different kind of vibe to it, a different kind of energy, a different kind of charisma. Then, after he died, you had a bunch of imitations, and they just never quite lived up to it. Eventually you have someone like Jackie Chan, who’s not an imitator who, again, has his own unique take on it.
I think video games are no different in that regard. I think when you have a game that just feels original and feels like it has its own unique voice, that’s what feels like a soul.
Tim Spaeth: Is there any series that has gone from having an extraordinary amount of soul to a complete absence of soul…any series more indicative of that than The Legend of Zelda? Those games were about exploration and wonder and discovery, and now those games are about—
Chi Kong Lui: Repeating the same thing over and over again.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. It’s about The Legend of Zelda. The games are self-referential, almost a parody of themselves. It’s about getting the bommerang.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Exactly. That was my first reaction: “Get the boomerang.”
Brad Gallaway: Totally. Mega Man was like that before it went by the wayside. The first one or two were totally revolutionary and brilliant, and then after that…I love Mega Man; don’t get me wrong. But they were kind of by-the-numbers, they were kind of rote.
For me, the ultimate example is Armored Core. When Armored Core came out on the PlayStation, it totally blew me away. It just was fresh and new and exciting, and it was unbelievable and it had everything I love about giant robots, and it was just so kick-ass. And then they continued to run it into the ground, because they were checking their own boxes. They stopped innovating and they stopped being fresh and exciting and they were just like: “We did it once; we can do it again.” Any time any series goes into that place, it’s dead—Zelda, included.
Chi Kong Lui: Right. Then the other extreme of that: you get Super Mario 64, where it is doing the same things over again, but it has such a great take in a 3D space and such innovation there that that felt completely original and soulful as well.
Tim Spaeth: Or then Galaxy after it, I thought. But the New Super Mario Bros. Wii or whatever they’re calling it? Not so much of a soul there.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah.
Tim Spaeth: All right, I think we’ve explained that pretty well. So we are down to our last question, and it could potentially be a big one, but we’re going to keep it very short. This comes from Bosco, and he writes:
“If you had to pick a game of the decade, could you? What would it be and why?”
We didn’t do a game of the decade show, but this is gonna be it. Folks, real fast, what your game of the decade, and in two sentences why?
Mike Bracken: Mine is not a big surprise; I’m going with World of Warcraft. I don’t play anymore—I have no desire to play anymore—but for a span of two years, it totally dominated my life. What do they have now? 15 million people playing? Clearly, there’s something that works there that people like, and it’s become the template for all MMOs. That’s my game of the decade.
Chi Kong Lui: Mine is Wii Sports. It’s symbolic of the whole rise and fall of casual gaming. Has anything caused more concern for console gamers and been more talked about and argued and debated? That’s my pick.
Brad Gallaway: If I had to pick one, I think I would go for one of the most obvious ones: Grand Theft Auto III. Its take in introducing these open world concepts that are now commonplace and almost expected really turned the world on its ear at the time. It may have had issues, but it was really, really revolutionary when it came out. For me, no other game in the past decade has had more of an influence on the industry overall than GTA III.
Tim Spaeth: I hate to be repetitive, but I’m gonna go with World of Warcraft, which I guess makes it the GameCritics.com game of the decade.
I can only speak for myself. It has really, with very few exceptions, completely eliminated PC gaming as a hobby for me. Only recently have I come back and started playing PC games again, because whenever I’m sitting at my laptop and thinking about another game, I’m thinking: “Well, gosh, I should be playing World of Warcraft because that’s more important,” when indeed, it’s not really important at all. I can’t play first-person shooters on computers anymore, because my muscle memory thinks I’m trying to control my World of Warcraft character. So Half-Life has become a console game for me, and that is a major change from who I was five years ago. It’s changed everything for me from a gaming standpoint.
That’s it for our questions, and I wanna thank all of our readers. We are officially caught up, so if there’s additional things you want to ask us; if we missed a question, feel free to ask it again. Where do you ask your questions? You got to GameCritics.com. That’s where you leave your feedback; you can also listen to the show there. You can also go to iTunes or Zune, but we’d really like you to come to the GameCritics.com website.
While you’re there, read some features and reviews. We’ve got a slew of new, hot writers. Tons of new content. Am I right, guys? I went to the site today; there were five new articles, and it’s Saturday. When does that happen? Just fantastic stuff.
Brad Gallaway: We have a lot of new guys—new blood—who are really, really, really talented. If you haven’t been to the site in a while, this is definitely the perfect time to come back. Because the guys we have on staff now are hot. And they can write well, too.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Jesus Christ.
Chi Kong Lui: I thought that was an appeal to our women listeners.
Mike Bracken: I thought you were coming out.
BG Of course, you guys would go there. You prick. [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: I totally didn’t know where this fucking show was going. It’s man love.
Brad Gallaway: Man love. I like it.
Tim Spaeth: It is bromance. At any rate, it’s a really exciting time to be part of the site, so we hope everybody comes and checks it out and continues listening to the show. We’ll be back next time with our 30th episode. I suspect by that point, Mass Effect 2 will be out. I have a feeling we’ll probably be talking about that. At least Brad and I.
Brad Gallaway: Definitely. I’m ready to talk about it now.
Chi Kong Lui: I’ll start talking about Mass Effect 1.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, God. You’ve got some catching up to do, dude.
Tim Spaeth: Well, any last thoughts, guys?
Brad Gallaway: As always, thanks for tuning in.
Tim Spaeth: My thanks to you guys; my thanks to all the listeners. I’m Tim Spaeth. 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.