Screaming Into The Abyss

Uncharted 3: Consumer's Deception
By Ben Zvan
On December 07, 2011 at 08:48
Games

Uncharted 3So...I finally finished Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception last night. Overall, I'd have to say it's a worthwhile game, but it has some severe issues.

Story: B+
The storyline of Uncharted 3 follows a wandering path across the globe to discover secrets of imense wealth and power hidden a long, long time ago. This is a familiar story for anyone who has played Tomb Raider or the other Uncharted games. It works, it's fun, and it doesn't have to be too closely interwoven with the gameplay, so it's easy to implement. In this case, it tied in well enough with the puzzles that you could almost believe the storyline and gameplay were developed with some collaboration.

Nearly every chapter had me wondering what crazy plot point would come out next and I mostly cared about the characters and what happened to them. Unfortunately, the plot is often driven by stupidity. It's not as bad as Tomb Raider's Angel of Darkness episode which could have been entirely avoided in the first minutes of the game, but I couldn't help thinking a few times during the game that 'that was a dumb thing to do.'

Art: A+
Creatively, this is a beautiful game. The color palates are well-conceived and appropriate, often bold. The environments are immersive and give a real sense of being there. The architecture is as detailed as any I've seen in a game this year, interrupted only by bright yellow 'hang or climb on this' objects. The character modeling is impeccable and just in the right spot to avoid too much of the Uncanny Valley.

There's one environment (you'll know it when you see it...lots of water) that just blew me away when it was revealed. I've seen other game levels with similar concepts, but this one was just amazing. I felt like I should be able to find it on Google Earth.

Gameplay: C-
The actual game is where this title falls on it's face. The climbing puzzles are great. The environmental puzzles are great. The ability to shoot a gun while hanging from the side of a building is quite handy. The fight animations are nearly on par with Batman: Arkham City in their creativity and satisfying takedowns. The problem comes with the controls.

Drake has a clumsy walk, as he pretty much always has, which surprises me for a motion-captured animation. Was their actor hit by a truck before they did that one? His tendency to touch walls and pillars as he passes them is endearing at first but then made me think he was drunk, and by the end of the game I thought he was Adrian Monk's long lost twin. I can't count the number of times I died because I dive-rolled off a ledge instead of hanging from it (same button). Or dive-rolled past a wall instead of taking cover behind it (same button). Or hung off a ledge instead of taking cover behind a wall (get the picture yet?)

You like those fight animations? Like smashing your opponent into a wall and taking his gun? Get ready for timed button mashing with little blinking triangle, circle, and square icons on the screen. I hated this mechanism when it was introduced and I hate it still today. Sometimes it's done well, but it's still annoying no matter how well it's done.

And on top of all that, there was the overarching problem that once I broke my cover, I was stuck in an epic gunfight with no way to go back and try being stealthy again. The stealth kills were great, but I almost never got to use them because I'd slip up at some point and hundreds of gun-wielding thugs would run into the room. Not to mention that for a thief and explorer, Nathan Drake has an epic body count.

Verdict: Buy it, but don't rush. Used is soon enough.

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Resistance 2
By Ben Zvan
On November 05, 2008 at 12:31
Games

Resistance 2 San FranciscoI picked up Resistance 2 yesterday. Between voting, promotion photos for an apartment building, arguing ideology, making deerburgers and drinking Surley and caipirinhas I managed to finish the first two chapters and get well into the third.

This is definitely a move forward, technology-wise. The graphics are truly amazing, the enemies can be truly oppressive, and the environments are truly huge. Since the original, launch-title Resistance: Fall of Man was built with Playstation 2 development tools, it's not surprising that there would be a big leap forward with a newer toolkit and additional experience. Insomniac has done well in the past squeaking more power out of the console and I expect that they'll continue the tradition.

The gameplay is actually quite similar to R:FOM. Like many sequel FPSs, they have done away with the concept of health and med kits. If your screen is dark red and you can hear your pulse, take cover for a minute and you'll be okay. Since, in the first game, you could regain a portion of your health by staying out of the line of fire, this isn't a huge change. Its biggest effect is removing a HUD element from the screen, which improves the immersive experience quite a bit.

Insomniac has lived up to their legacy and provided many new and interesting weapons. Obviously, there's nothing as interesting as a rift ripper or a tornado gun, but some of the weapons are very reminiscent of Rachet and Clank. There's a flying, electrocuting drone, for example, that really reminds me of the plasma storm. A nice addition to the arsenal is the marksman, which is a three-shot burst rifle with a low-power scope and probably the best all-around weapon in the game. One major change weapon-wise is the move to a two-weapon system. Insomniac's reasoning for the change was to let you play with bigger guns earlier in the game and fight bigger enemies right off the bat. I think they could have acomplished the same thing by limiting the ammunition available for the bigger guns and keeping the same inventory system. On the other hand, it doesn't detract anything for me and it increases the tactical difficulties somewhat.

Story-wise, I'm a little dissapointed so far. R:FOM had a really engaging storyline that introduced you to the characters and the Chimera. It also had information about characters that never actually appeared on-screen, providing depth to the environment. Resistance 2 hasn't really engaged me with story yet. The Chimera have evolved a bit, but without any real explanation. There's secret stuff going on in San Francisco that I'm sure will come up later, but could have been used to drive these early stages of the game forward.

Best moment so far: Stepping out to the battery in San Francisco. I have stood in that spot and seeing it in-game was very powerful.

Overall impression: A great game, but only a high 8 out of 10 unless the story line improves.

Update: Story starts at chapter 4.

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Friends with Ideas
By Ben Zvan
On September 11, 2008 at 08:56
Games

Early FPS - Wolfenstein 3DMy class this fall is Art History 5925, The History of Photography as art. I've only attended two class sessions (I had training last week and missed the first two) but I am finding it to be a fascinating discussion of how artists and art historians have viewed photography since it's invention by Daguerre and Talbot nearly 170 years ago. I'm sure that I'll go into more detail on that later.

Years ago, when I worked at the local Renaissance Festival, I met a fellow by the name of Corvus. He was a brilliant actor, creative bloody marry maker, and aspiring game developer. I have recently developed a craving for his Holy Bloody Mary, Mother of God and asked him about his recipe, which he happily relinquished in exchange for my Perfect Margarita recipe. Once I manage to find the agave nectar he recommended, the perfect margaritas will be even more perfecter.

My new found experience with historical views on photography has probably made me more aware of how other people view art and creations. When I discovered via Facebook that Corvus had written a blog post on the history of the first-person camera in video games, I dug into it like one of my historical photographic essays. It's an interesting investigation of what most people would consider mundane truths. Have you ever been playing a video game and thought "I don't feel properly informed of my physical presence?" I will now.

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Burnout: Need for Speed
By Ben Zvan
On December 15, 2007 at 08:45
Games

I picked up the demo for Burnout Paradise yesterday. I'm not really sure what to think and how to compare it to the rest of the Burnout series, because there's no real comparison. My first impression is that they stripped out what made it Burnout in an attempt to appeal to a consumer that they never knew. Of course, I suppose I could have seen that coming.

Burnout 2: This was one of the first PS2 games I ever had. It was part of a gift package I received on my birthday several years ago when I never thought I'd be part of the console generation. When I was a kid, we never had a Nintendo or an Atari. My exposure to video games was first through text adventure games on the IBM PC (xyzzyx 4 ever!) then through the Apple ][ and on into the Macintosh. Anyway, Burnout 2 with it's impressive particle generators and ever-present bouncing tire was an addictive guilty-pleasure of a game. For me, racing mode was a method of unlocking more of the crash mode and, through that, became a compelling challenge of its own.

Crash mode found the player a short distance from a busy intersection sitting in a junker car. When the pleasant Japanese announcer said "Go!" you put the petal to the metal and slammed into the intersection, hoping to cause the most mayhem you could. Points were calculated by multiplying the cost of each insurance claim by the number of insurance claims. You could knock a bus off a cliff and cause it total and complete damage while earning fewer points than nudging the same bus into the middle of oncoming traffic. A simple but strangely complex formula drove your success or failure.

Racing mode had a few different challenges. Standard racing was what you'd expect. Beat the other cars across the finish line to earn a Gold, Silver or Bronze medal. 1 on 1 gave you the option of racing for pink slips and was one of two ways to unlock new cars. Pursuit mode turned you in to the cop who impounded your next ride if you were quick enough.

Burnout sucked and is barely worth mentioning. After the great enjoyment that Burnout 2 brought, I had to see the beginning of the franchise. I couldn't have been less impressed had this beginning also included Jar-jar Binks.

Burnout 3: Takedown: This one was an interesting change from Burnout 2. With the addition of not only adding the ability to sideswipe and "shunt" your opponents in the race they really improved the mechanics of that side of the game creating a host of new race types to choose from. Now you have additional options aside from being the fastest car on the track. You can crash the other guys to keep them from passing you or shove them into traffic to take their place in the pack. Crash mode suffered a little under this release however. The addition of "pick-ups" was a huge change from the complexity of simpleness that drove Burnout 2. The crashbreaker pickup that caused your car to explode was a nice touch and fun to hit when you're next to a pile of cars and a tanker truck The gameplay was still interesting but the subtlety was overrun by the need to find the 4x multiplier in order to get the top score. I find it ironic that this addition of a complex mechanic actually made the gameplay simpler and more predictable.

Burnout Revenge: Really an enhancement of the changes made in Burnout 3, I found this game to be compelling but it still lacked the charm of Burnout 2. The crashbreaker moved into race mode so you could, if you were taken out by your opponents, explode next to them for the titular revenge takedown. Race mode definitely benefited with the improvements over Burnout 3 and so did crash mode. In removing the pick-ups from crash mode but keeping the crashbreaker available after causing n number of crashes, they moved back toward the simplicity of the Burnout 2 crash mode. But they added a golf-game-style hit-the-button-at-the-top-and-bottom-of-the-thing-on-the-left mechanic that was only really fun when your friends didn't know about it and blew up their car at the starting line. Actually, that part was hysterical. They also added needless button mashing to invoke the crashbreaker that I'm certain caused many controllers to be replaced.

Burnout Paradise: Welcome to the world of open, non-linear gameplay where the player has free reign over a citywide environment and the ability to skip playing the game entirely and just drive around hitting jumps and wrecking their car.

Wait... Didn't I play this already? Wasn't it called Grand Theft Auto? Well, there aren't any pedestrians to run over here and you don't get to fly any helicopters or shoot anyone in the face with an RPG, but I really felt the need to look around for hidden packages. Okay, so no hidden packages, but like the Rockstar billboards in GTA, the Burnout billboards in paradise city are a target for bonuses. Removing the game menu is a common tool for creating a "more immersive game experience" these days and Burnout Paradise has certainly done that. If you want to go to a new race or other type of challenge, take a look at the street map and then drive there. Again, memories of GTA now with a twist of the more recent Tony Hawk games come to the surface.

For game types we now have trick mode which seems to be Tokyo Drift inspired. I haven't seen a race yet, but I'm sure they're in there. There's no evidence of the crashbreaker or even crash mode, but this is a demo after all. The one thing that Burnout 4 added that really appealed to me, the ability to rear-end traffic to cause a pile of mayhem behind you, has been made more realistic by causing you to wreck your car instead of creating a ballistic nightmare. Even handbreak drifting has been made more realistic. The lack of realism in the previous games had been fine-tuned seemingly for me and has completely disapeared in this release.

I remember playing a demo of Need for Speed, I think it was the "Underground" entry into the franchise, where the playing field was open and races happened whenever you challenged another driver on the street. I never got into Need for Speed, and I'm not sure I'll get into Paradise either. If it doesn't come to me as a gift, it's coming to me used.

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The Darkness
By Ben Zvan
On August 20, 2007 at 11:35
Games

After a summer of superhero videogames like Superman and Spiderman and outcry against violent games about criminals, two games really stand out. inFamous from Sucker Punch, which sets up the player to "discover and grow extraordinary powers" while leading a city into either salvation or chaos, and The Darkness from 2kgames which puts the player in the position of darkness incarnate, exacting vengeance on the mob.

I downloaded the demo for The Darkness on PS3 this weekend. I'm surprised I haven't heard more noise from the anti-videogame camp yet. Any game that has a button specifically for devouring the heart of an enemy has to merit their attention.

The textures in the game are a little rough, but I expect that will improve for the full version. I'm guessing that the use of dynamic lighting everywhere is a little expensive in the game engine too, so they might have skimped some places to get that working. There's no way they could do without the dynamic lighting though, since all the lights are destroy-able and that's an intimate part of the game-play. I'm torn between "Why would I want to play a criminal who is basically EVIL?" and "Dang, this is an awesome game!"

The weapons in your arsenal are pretty standard pistols-and-shotgun fare, but the Darkness powers are what make the game shine (pun intended). While I was playing, I was reminded of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones in that the main character's alter-ego is a total bad-ass who lives in shadow. You've got minions, tentacles, and the aforementioned ability to devour hearts (I'm not sure what that gets you, but the game keeps a running tally), you can see in total darkness, act at a distance and basically be a Power of Destruction.

The details of object interaction add some great realism. If you're half around a corner, only one hand can hold a gun out to shoot. There are two reticles, one for your left gun, one for the right. If there's a car in the way of a gate, you can open the gate a little, but then it bounces back off the car. This interaction combined with the Darkness Powers provide an opportunity for unique environmental puzzles that the developers didn't shy away from.

Overall, I'm looking forward to the full release and an opportunity to impale opponents with my tentacles, devour hearts, and feel kinda' dirty.

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Arts

New Pictures 8: Sarah Jones
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
04/18/2013—02/02/2014 - Free

31 Years: Gifts from Martin Weinstein
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
11/02/2013—08/31/2014 - Free

New Pictures 9: Rinko Kawauchi
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
02/20/2014—08/10/2014 - Free

Finland: Designed Environments
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
05/10/2014—08/17/2014 - Free

Music

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
at State Theatre
06/21/2014 \ Doors 8:00pm

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